Numeracy and graphics apparently are not on the syllabus at Harvard, if one were to judge from this chart from the most recent edition of Harvard Magazine:
I added the orange circle to show a typo. But pretty much everything is wrong with this chart, from the sideways labels to the redundant use of data labels, column lengths and axis labels to plot the same series of data. (See the posts on self-sufficiency.)
Meanwhile, the insistent printing of five digits for the dollar amounts and the academic-year styling of the years are giveaways for innumeracy: the reliance on precision where it is neither useful nor necessary. Nothing at all is lost by rounding the amounts or shortening the years.
Most worrisome is the defiant announcement that the data is "not adjusted for inflation". One might as well replace that with "this analysis can't be trusted". When plotting a long time series, there is no excuse for not adjusting currencies for inflation. A dollar in 2010 just does not have the same spending power as a dollar in 1986. This is not a mere oversight; it's a major blunder, as revealed by the following junkart version:
When the data is not adjusted, it appeared that tuition, room and board jumped by 220% between 1986 and 2010. However, when adjusted for inflation, the cumulative growth was only 75%. Without the adjustment, the reported growth was exaggerated threefold.
This is a good example to explain, yet again, why statisticians adjust data. The raw data is the blue line shown above. It shows the cumulative growth of 220%. This metric is misleading. One should ask: how big is this 220% growth, really? It should depend on how much more expensive other goods and services have become over the same period of time, shouldn't it? If the costs of groceries, clothing, fuel, etc. have all gone up by 200% or so, or if wages have also gone up by that amount, then the steep blue curve would not be so scary.
The green line is the raw data adjusted by the CPI index. CPI is the inflation index which, put simply, is the average price index of a basket of goods and services. So, the green line is how much tuition, room and board has grown after "controlling" for the growth of the average basket of goods and services; it's the "excess" growth.
Of course, the excess growth is what the chart should be portraying.