American Consumers Newsletter

by Cheryl Russell, Editorial Director, New Strategist Press
June 2010

Shark Attack

1. Hot Trends:  SHARK ATTACK

To see Cheryl Russell’s Demo Memo blog, click here.

1. Hot Trends 

Shark Attack

A few weeks ago, one of the mechanical sharks from the 1975 blockbuster movie Jaws was discovered in a junkyard in Los Angeles–a sorry end to a fearsome beast. In movies, beasts are dispatched in a matter of hours. In real life, not so much.

Jaws portrayed an epic battle between a great white shark and three men in a boat. Today, another epic battle between shark and man is unfolding with economic consequences far more dire than the loss of revenue in a fictional beach resort. The biggest beast ever has been sighted in the water: Wal-Mart has announced a partnership with the for-profit (and ironically named) American Public University to “help” its employees earn a college degree. Fighting the beast is the Department of Education, which wants to propose new “gainful employment” regulations to prevent for-profit universities from eating their students alive.

For-profit universities have a problem. They feed on student debt. For proof, look no further than these statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, showing the percentage of full-time undergraduates with student loans by type of school:

Public two-year:  23%
Public four-year: 53%
Private four-year (not-for-profit): 65%
Private two- and four-year (for profit): 92%

It is not surprising that the world’s largest retailer sees an opportunity in the for-profit education industry. Over the past few years, for-profit education has become immensely profitable by tapping into government-guaranteed student loans. But Wal-Mart’s timing may be off. Bad press about for-profits is mounting (see, for example, Frontline’s “College, Inc.”). The federal government is wising up to the danger of too much student debt. Given the gridlock in Congress, however, and the size of the sharks in the water, there may be too little political muscle to ensure the safety of the next generation of swimmers.

Certainly, the lifeguards–journalists–are not doing their job. Here’s an example of what the media had to say about Wal-Mart’s sighting in the for-profit education waters: “First they rolled back the cost of everyday goods. Now Wal-Mart is rolling back the cost of college for its employees,” cheered the New York Daily News. Even a cursory examination of the facts–no more than a couple of keystrokes–would have proven that statement false. The cost of an associate’s degree from Wal-Mart’s for-profit partner is estimated to be $11,700 after Wal-Mart’s tuition discount. Compare that figure with the $4,800 average cost of an associate’s degree from a public college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Something smells awfully fishy here. According to the College Board, only 4 percent of students awarded a bachelor’s degree in 2007-08 from a private for-profit university graduated without debt. This compares with 28 percent of students at private not-for-profit schools and 38 percent of those at public schools.

How big is the debt burden for the average bachelor’s degree recipient? The College Board has done the calculation by type of school:

Public school graduate: $10,500
Private (not-for-profit) school graduate: $16,400
Private (for profit) school graduate:  $29,900

Is $29,900 too much debt? It depends on how much a graduate can expect to earn, and that is the measure the government would like to apply. The Department of Education would like to deny federal student aid to for-profit schools whose graduates cannot repay their student loans within ten years by spending no more than 8 percent of their starting salary. This is called “gainful employment.” How much would the average bachelor’s degree recipient have to earn to meet the qualifications? At the current 7.9 percent interest rate on federal PLUS student loans, these are the starting salaries required, given the above debt figures:

Public school graduate: $19,025
Private (not-for-profit) school graduate: $29,717
Private (for profit) school graduate:  $54,179

Keep in mind that the median earnings of men aged 25 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree who work full-time is just $52,468 (and for their female counterparts, $41,805). No wonder the for-profit college lobby is criticizing “almost every element of the regulations: the 8 percent debt limit, the 10-year repayment period and the underlying idea that high debt loads lead to loan default,” according to the New York Times. The for-profits feed on student debt, and their food source is being threatened. They are fighting for their lives.

And there are a lot of them. The Career College Association represents (lobbies for) 1,450 for-profit colleges. Even the media are growing teeth and learning how to swim. About Wal-Mart’s entry into the for-profit education industry, one reporter commented: “Here’s a new way to look at Wal-Mart: institution of higher learning.” Perhaps the reporter did not know that the same could be said about her own employer, The Washington Post. More than half of the Washington Post Company’s revenue is generated by its for-profit Kaplan University.

Last week the Department of Education, under pressure from the Career College Association, announced that it would delay proposing the gainful employment regulations. The sharks have moved in for the kill.

By Cheryl Russell, editorial director, New Strategist Publications. If you have questions or comments about the above editorial, e-mail New Strategist at


Percentage of Baby Boomers with children of any age
living in their home: 40.

Source: American Generations

2. Q & A

What’s Happening to Births?

It would be nice to know. Unfortunately, the latest available detailed examination of births in the United States is from the distant past of 2006–an era that predates the Great Recession. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) promises that the 2007 detailed data will be released next month. At this point, who cares? 2007 is so yesterday, the year when births hit an all-time high. According to a variety of sources, including the NCHS’s own provisional monthly numbers, we are in the midst of a plunge in childbearing coincident with the economic downturn.

Consider the Social Security Administration’s records. Every newborn is required to apply for a Social Security card, and this paper trail shows trends in births. In 2009, there were 4,097,878 newborn applicants for Social Security cards. The figure was down from the 2007 peak of 4,316,356–a 5 percent decline. The Social Security Administration, unlike the National Center for Health Statistics, is doing a pretty good of keeping up with things, even creating a fascinating first-name database (see Cool Links below) with 2009 information already available.

Monthly provisional birth counts are dribbling out of the NCHS, and they, too, confirm the decline in births since 2007. The latest numbers are for August 2009. The figures show births falling from 390,000 in August 2007 to 360,000 in August 2009–an 8 percent decline. The January-through-August figures are also down, falling from 2,868,000 in 2007 to 2,762,000 in 2009–a 4 percent decline. The birth rate fell from 14.3 births per 1,000 population for the 12 months ending in August 2007 to 13.6 for the 12 months ending in August 2009.

Is the decline in births a result of belt tightening among women in their twenties? Are single women deciding that times are too tough to have a baby without a marriage partner? Or are births declining because illegal immigrants are leaving the country as their jobs disappear? All may be true. The NCHS’s preliminary report on births in 2008 (at the current pace, the final 2008 report won’t be released until the middle of next year) shows that the decline in childbearing between 2007 and 2008 occurred in most age groups, among Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites, and even among unmarried mothers. The decline appears to have intensified between 2008 and 2009, according to the Social Security Administration’s records. What’s happening to births in 2010? We won’t know for quite a while.

By Cheryl Russell, editorial director, New Strategist Publications. If you have any questions or comments about the above Q & A, e-mail New Strategist at


Percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree who have used alternative medicine in the past year: 50.

Source: American Health

3. Cool Research Links

To keep up-to-date on ever-changing demographics and lifestyles, check out this useful link.

Baby Names
How popular are you? Now you can find out by visiting the fascinating Baby Names site created by the Social Security Administration. Here you can see where your name ranks among the top 1,000 names in every year all the way back to 1880. The name Cheryl, for example, peaked in popularity in 1958, when it was 13th. It has not ranked among the 1,000 most popular names since 1997. The Social Security Administration collects names from applications for Social Security numbers, required of all newborns in the United States.

In 2009, the most popular name for boys was Jacob and for girls Isabella. In 1950, the names were James and Linda. In 1900, John and Mary. Want to know what parents are naming their twins? No problem. The site generates the most popular names for twins whether two males, two females, or mixed. Want to know the top names in New York or South Carolina? The site generates names by state and year. Isabella, for example, ranked number one among girls in 20 states in 2009, Emma in 14 states, and Olivia in 8 states. In Nebraska, however, Addison was number one.

The site just keeps on giving. It also ranks names by changes in their popularity. In boys’ names, the biggest surge between 2008 and 2009 was for the name Cullen, moving from the rank of 782 all the way up to 485. (For Twilight fans: Jacob is already number one. Edward ranked 137th in popularity in 2009, up from 148th in 2008.)

Among girls’ names, Maliyah experienced the biggest surge in popularity, rising from 638 to 296 in rank between 2008 and 2009. We have the Obamas to thank for that, although their daughter’s name is spelled differently (Malia). The Baby Names site notes that different spellings of similar names are not combined in the rankings. The name Malia, spelled the Obama’s way, ranked 9th in increased popularity. Sasha (Obama’s other daughter) ranked 23rd in popularity change as it moved from 362 up to 261 in the ranking.

The Baby Names site notes that the top 1,000 names accounted for 73 percent of total names in 2009 (down from 78 percent in 2000). For researchers who want to go beyond the top 1,000, the Social Security Administration has downloadable files that contain every name with at least five occurrences. Enjoy!


Percentage of women who do the laundry
on an average day: 25.

Source: American Time Use

4. New for 2010: All new and expanded one-stop resources for understanding American consumers

Get accurate and reliable answers to your questions about American consumers from New Strategist’s books and downloadable reference tools. Much of the data in New Strategist’s references you cannot get anywhere else–including online!

  • American Attitudes: Who Thinks What about the Issues that Shape our Lives The new sixth edition of American Attitudes coaxes the results of the latest General Social Survey out of the shadows of academia and makes them readily available for researchers who want to explore Americans’ changing attitudes. Its hundreds of tables reveal what Americans think about topics ranging from gay marriage to the American Dream, how we feel about our financial status, our hopes for our children, how often we socialize and with whom, our religious beliefs, political leanings, and working conditions. Click here to see tables of contents, sample pages, and more.
  • American Generations: Who They Are and How They Live The new seventh edition of American Generations is a superior resource for researchers who want to quickly and easily compare and contrast the six living generations–iGeneration, Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boom, Swing, and World War II. Today’s world is changing rapidly and people who are as little as ten years apart in age can have very different experiences growing up, making them unlike one another in significant ways. American Generations reveals their differences and similarities. Click here to see tables of contents, sample pages, and more.
  • American Health: Demographics and Spending of Health Care Consumers The new third edition of American Health provides a comprehensive look at the demographics of health care consumers and the services they use, ranging from fish oil supplements to mammograms, from doctor visits to prescription medications. Click here to see tables of contents, sample pages, and more.
  • American Time Use: Who Spends How Long at What If you have ever wondered while watching TV why advertisers are so intent on selling snacks or sleep aids or cleaning products–or even why they spend so much money on television advertising itself–the new second edition of American Time Use has the answers. Here you can find detailed time use data for the two most important demographic characteristics for determining how people spend their time–their age and sex. Click here to see tables of contents, sample pages, and more.

For your convenience, New Strategist’s titles are available as searchable single- and multiple-user pdfs that are linked to spreadsheets of all the data tables in each book so you can do your own analysis and create PowerPoint presentations.


Percentage of Americans who definitely
believe in religious miracles: 55.

Source: American Attitudes