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Behind Debt by Degrees: How Can You Tell If a College Is Helping Poor Students?

Earlier this month, ProPublica released Debt by Degrees, a first-of-its-kind interactive database that lets you see the financial burden of college students from low-income families. We built it using a trove of data the federal Department of Education recently released on the nation’s colleges. Several weeks before making the information public, the White House granted us an early look – and what we found is that many elite institutions with deep pockets are leaving their poorest students with big debt.

In this week’s podcast, ProPublica editor Eric Umansky talks with news applications developer Sisi Wei and senior reporting fellow Annie Waldman about other findings from their analysis, and the ways in which the Debt by Degrees app takes a deeper dive into new federal data.

Butch Dill/AP

Some highlights from their conversation:

  • With millions of data cells to work with, the project was narrowed to three key factors. The Education Department’s raw data involved 7,000 schools, 2,000 variables and 15 years of data, pushing Waldman and Wei to focus on what was new. This came down to how much debt poor students graduate with compared to their wealthier peers, how well they are able to repay their loans, and how much they earn after graduation. (3:16)

  • Debt by Degrees “flips” the data focus to highlight college accountability. While the raw data gives the repayment rate of student debt and the percentage of students who make more than $25,000 after graduation, ProPublica inverted the data to show the rates of non-repayment and graduates who can’t even make 25K a year. Rather than simply presenting national averages, this emphasis places the data in context. (6:14)

  • Some schools offer great deals on tuition to low-income students, but still have high barriers to entry. ProPublica’s app shows a fuller picture by presenting different numbers in context of each other. For example, Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis give generous support to low-income students but don’t enroll many of them – just 10 percent and six percent respectively. (11:08)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more of ProPublica’s reporting on college debt, read Colleges Flush with Cash Saddle Poorest Students with Debt and As Pope Pushes to the Help the Poor, Catholic Universities Leave them Behind.

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