It seems that pundits who include NY Times journalist Thomas Friedman have been unnecessarily alarming people about the state of higher education in the U.S. The thegazette.com site, covering eastern Iowa, recently uncovered a problem with statistics Friedman cited while making a speech in Atlanta, that relates to the number of Chinese accepted into the freshman class of Grinnell College in Iowa.
Commentators including the U.S. Secretary of Education and Friedman, author of the well-known books The World is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded, have been reporting that 10% of the incoming freshman class at Grinnell are from mainland China, and that half of those students got perfect 800s on their math SATs.
As related in the thegazette.com piece, the truth is that 8.6% of the Grinnell applicants this year are Chinese -- that comes out to 255 of them. Grinnell actually accepted 11 of these applicants. So only about 2.5% of the incoming class is Chinese. And nobody seems to know how many of the 11 actually aced their math SATs.
The confusion seems to have arisen from a misreading of an article about colleges recruiting in China that ran in Friedman's own NY Times last February. "At rural Grinnell, nearly one of every 10 applicants being considered for the class of 2015 is from China," it said. It went on to say that "half of Grinnell's applicants from China this year have perfect scores of 800 on the math portion of the SAT."
The Wikipedia entry for Hot, Flat, and Crowded says that Friedman uses the book to address America's "surprising lack of focus.." Perhaps Friedman himself should have been a bit more focused when he read the original NY Times piece from which he drew his figures.