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Sizing up student debt at for-profit colleges

How The New York World made sense of new federal data on student loan burdens

The New York World recently published a interactive and article looking at how well New York City for-profit colleges prepare their students for employment and student debt repayment. In June, the U.S. Department of Education released these numbers to provide prospective students with further information when researching schools. But without a modest understanding of the somewhat arcane measures, the data is unusable. It was our job to clean it up.

The release comes two years after the Obama administration defined “Gainful Employment” regulations that have been part of federal education law for decades. With an executive order, education programs whose students receive federal loans would be penalized for failing to meet all of the following three standards:

1) A “repayment rate” under 35 percent. This refers to the percent of a program’s graduates who paid down their loans by reducing the balance over the following two years. It would not consider paying down accrued interest as a repayment. And it is meant to show how many students are making appreciable payments on their loans.

2 & 3) A debt-to-discretionary income ratio of under 30 percent and a debt-to-annual earnings ratio under 12 percent. These were calculated by comparing the average amount of incurred debt for each student in a particular program with the amount of money earned by those graduates in the following two years. This showed how heavy the debt burden was on students after graduation.

The government’s source data, which we downloaded as a CSV, was messy. The colleges in Queens weren’t listed by the borough, but rather by its constituent neighborhoods. And a number of programs failed to provide sufficient data. After doing a quick clean-up of the worksheet in Excel, we loaded the information into Google Refine for easier manipulation. And to get the visual we wanted, we uploaded the spreadsheet to a database where we queried it using MySQL.

For the visual, we chose to focus on repayment rates for simplicity’s sake and broke the rates down by program type and school. We also published a searchable table that included every education program in New York State whose students’ debt repayments are being assessed by the federal government.

It should be noted that these data are preliminary and that the U.S. Department of Education will not be taking punitive action against schools this year. And because of a court injunction, it’s unclear when, if ever, the penalties for schools with excessively high student debt burdens will go into effect. But the data can and should be used as one of many different research options for prospective students. And we will continue to update the data as the U.S. Department of Education provides more information.