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Behind the Headline: Christopher Copolillo

As a student journalist, Christopher Copolillo used Debt By Degrees, ProPublica’s tool for assessing the debt burden colleges put on low-income families, to hold his own university accountable.

Kendrick Brinson for ProPublica

Impact has been at the core of ProPublica’s mission since we launched 10 years ago, and it remains the principal yardstick for our success today. For our 10th anniversary, we’re presenting stories of people whose lives have been affected by our work.

Christopher Copolillo was a grad student at the University of Southern California in 2017, when the Trump administration announced plans to cut $3.9 billion from the Pell Grant program for low-income college students. “It felt so wrong, and I wondered how it would play out in our local context,” said Copolillo, a former public school teacher who was majoring in public policy analysis.

A columnist for USC’s student newspaper The Daily Trojan, Copolillo set out to write an article ringing the alarm about the White House’s proposed Pell Grant cuts. “Living in L.A. can sometimes feel like you’re far away from the federal government and the ways these policies can affect real people. I wanted to give people some context and an access point.”

He turned to ProPublica’s Debt By Degrees database, which lets users see how much U.S. colleges and universities financially support (or financially burden) their poorest students. Launched in 2015 by news applications developer Sisi Wei (now deputy editor, news applications) and reporter Annie Waldman, Debt By Degrees came with a “reporting recipe” of journalistic insights and techniques to help student reporters investigate debt at their own schools.

Using Debt By Degrees, Copolillo found that USC was in the top one-fourth of colleges in the amount of aid it provides for students. But a closer examination of the data showed that the university ranked in the middle of the pack when it came to the number of low-income students it brings to its campus in the first place. “I was encouraged by the fact that USC was doing better than some,” said Copolillo, who now works for an education nonprofit in Los Angeles. “But the tool makes it really clear that there’s still so far to go. Debt By Degrees was invaluable to my reporting. I could not have contextualized USC, or talked about it with folks on campus, without it.”

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