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Report on the student debt crisis with our new simplified database

Student debt is quickly becoming a national crisis. But reporting on student loans and college finances has always been thorny, especially when dealing with complicated bureaucracies and patchwork data.

Earlier this year, for the first time ever, the Obama Administration released a comprehensive intersection of student population, college performance and “outcome” data, measuring with precise detail who gets into what school and what they do after graduation. But the Department of Education’s raw “College Scorecard” is a labyrinth of information covering some 7,800 campuses all over the country, broken down by almost 2,000 different variables – everything from enrollment demographics and SAT scores to repayment rates and post-graduate earnings.

Today, NICAR is offering a simplified, Excel-ready version of the database – College Scorecard Simplified – along with a data dictionary and step-by-step guide on how you can analyze data specific to your beat and start reporting. We’ve cleaned and pared down the original database to include the most usable fields, a step that will save busy reporters a great deal of time. We’re also providing a robust list of caveats, in addition to the DOE’s documentation and other important resources, most notably ProPublica’s Debt by Degrees project.

NICAR’s free College Scorecard Simplified database is accessible for reporters of any experience level to quickly download and analyze. Using the data, newsrooms can track and compare schools’ accessibility across different income levels alongside performance metrics and ultimate outcomes.

Many schools across the country are under budget constraints, so understanding how appropriations have impacted students can paint a vivid picture in your city or state. The Scorecard also provides insight into the world of private for-profit colleges, which have sprung up in cities – and online – across the country. Most importantly, the data covers all federal grant and loan recipients, so reporters can now measure the effectiveness of government aid across different types of students and schools.  


This project was prepared by Brett Murphy, the 2016 IRE and NICAR Google NewsLab Fellow. Special thanks to Annie Waldman at ProPublica and Andrea Fuller at the Wall Street Journal.

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