They’re not even that similar.

When trying to understand trends in American higher education journalists and reformers face a difficult task. This country’s academic system is so incredibly diverse that even word “college” is a source of confusion. When President Barack Obama introduced his nonstarter proposal to provide free community college to all earlier this year, conservative pundits complained that “many Americans wrongly believe that everyone should get a 4-year college degree. It may be hard to accept or unpopular to say, but not everyone needs to go to college.”

Is there really any American who thinks that everyone should get a 4-year college degree?

This is the trouble with how we talk about college. Recently over at the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts, has have a helpful post for how to think about academic reforms. Be specific.

There are four things to keep in mind, he argues:

1) Define what you mean by “universities.”

many of higher education’s negative financial externalities have nothing to do with research universities. Exploding levels of student debt and default, for example, have a lot to do with for-profit colleges.

2) Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist.

Is administrative bloat a problem? Yeah, probably. [But] after 15 years… administrative costs and student services they haven’t increased by that much, particularly at state schools. Instruction is still responsible for more than half of all spending at research universities.

3) Don’t rely on outdated data.

Actually here he’s mostly talking about not relying on crappy, disproven studies, but either way, yes. Use good information.

4) Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy.

When politicians and pundits argue in favor of reallocating resources from one college major to another, they’re trying to say that they can pick disciplinary winners and losers better than universities, foundations or the students themselves. There are big risks in making that assumption, especially if you base these selections on “facts” such as welders outearning philosophers that turn out not to be true.

This is a problem in many policy discussions. The most serious, and most interesting, problems generally impact a relatively small amount of people. Student loan default! English majors who can’t find jobs!

And reforming things to address most serious, and most interesting, problems can result in pretty dramatic changes to the rest of the schools, who are doing just about as well as they always have, and operate just about as well as they were designed to operate.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer