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Data-driven student debt coverage

September 24, 2015

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College of Dupage students
College of DuPage students return to classes in the fall. Photo Flickr user via COD Newsroom

Student loans have increased by 84 percent since 2008, according to an Experian analysis.

Students, former students and graduates now owe $1.2 trillion in student loan debt compared with $346 billion at the end of 2004, according to an earlier Experian report.

Here are some places to find data-driven story ideas that go beyond the usual student loan debt angles.

U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard

President Obama recently directed the Department of Education to gather comprehensive data on the amount students were borrowing, and compare that with repayment data and earnings data from all degree-granting institutions after graduation.

The goal was to create a scorecard to provide students with a better understanding of the likely costs and outcomes of their college choices. The DOE produced an 80-page report with its findings and analysis.

DOE also created a searchable interactive tool to help students access and understand this data on colleges. It offers a number of story ideas.

How much debt do students attending your local college or university take on? What is the school’s graduation rate? How does debt compare with graduates’ median earnings 10 years after graduation?

Loans, Grants and Low-income Students

How well do universities support low-income students?

The nonprofit news organization, ProPublica, created another online interactive tool based on this College Scorecard database.

ProPublica’s version helps break down the data about Pell Grants and discounts offered to low-income students.

The tool shows how colleges and universities stack up in a number of different categories, including their number of Pell Grant recipients, the average cost for low-income students and the average discounts students receive.

It’s easy for you to localize this data.

For instance, if you’re a reporter writing for the Ames Tribune in Iowa, the ProPublica tool can provide you with data specific to Iowa State University from the DOE’s College Scorecard. Using the tool, you can see that only 22.6 percent of its 27,112 undergrad students received Pell Grants. And the median debt those students are taking on is $22,500.

ProPublica used the tool to complement a well-done investigative piece. It noted some universities with deep pockets aren’t supporting low-income students with discounts and grants, thus leaving them with heavy debts.

Student Loans at For-profit Colleges

Earlier this year, the Reynolds Center reported on the Corinthian 15, a group of former students at the for-profit college chain who refused to pay back their student loans. The group won loan forgiveness for some of their fellow Corinthian students.

In the wake of the fraud investigations from the government, the for-profit university business model is being scrutinized more closely, as is the mounting loan debt assumed by students at for-profit colleges.

According to a September report from the Brookings Institute, the college loan debt of students attending for-profit colleges like Corinthian grew from $39 billion to $229 billion between 2000 and 2014.

In 2013, 13 for-profit institutions were listed in the top 25 colleges and universities to  which students owe the most debt. Back in 2000, only one, for-profit University of Phoenix, made the top 25 list.

You can use the data in this report to show changes to borrowing habits for students at for-profit institutions compared to traditional nonprofit institutions and the rapid growth of borrowing to attend for-profit schools.


  • Adam DeRose

    Adam DeRose is a senior HR reporter at Morning Brew covering HR tech, automation and AI, and the future of work. He was previously supervising producer at The Hill in Washington, D.C., leading a team of political news producers following the drama in...

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