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Analyzing College Scorecard data for higher education stories

By Tyler Wornell

The College Scorecard is a database with a treasure trove of data about higher education institutions, providing information about graduation rates, debt repayment rates and median income for career fields. There’s a wealth of story ideas sitting in the database, and knowing what data is there and how to use it can help you get started.

In Thursday’s panel “2,000+ data points on 7,000+ colleges: How to make stories & sense of the College Scorecard,” Sarah Butrymowicz from the Hechinger Report, Andrew Kreighbaum from Inside Higher Ed and Kim Clark from the Education Writers Association discussed the information available in the College Scorecard database and some key data errors to watch out for.

So, what exactly is the College Scorecard? It was created by the Department of Education during President Barack Obama’s administration to provide information about college outcomes and create a sort of college ranking system. It includes data on 7,000 colleges and is the largest-ever release of higher education data.

It shows earnings data for a typical graduate of each university, median debt held by graduates and repayment rates on graduates’ student loan debt, as well as other metrics. The data only represents students who received some sort of federal financial aid, which limits the sample size.

The data is great for comparing outcomes of schools across states and regions. It can answer questions such as, which colleges produce the biggest earners?

Additionally, the data can help raise further questions about institutions’ actions. Are they aware of their graduates’ struggles repaying loan debt compared to similar schools? What are they doing about it? Do they have information on whether graduates with certain majors struggle to repay loans? These are just some of the things to think about when analyzing the data.

There are flaws in the data to be aware of. Some fields are empty or suppressed based on enrollment at the college. If you’re looking at universities that are part of larger systems, the data gets clunky because of the codes by which schools are identified. For the debt data, systems that have multiple campuses are only tagged under one identifying code, making it impossible to disaggregate the campus-level data. Be aware of that if you see duplicates in the data.

With a little bit of cleaning, the College Scorecard is an easily accessible database that has stories ready to be written.

Tyler Wornell is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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