DEGREE OF DEBT: Exploring the data

DEGREE OF DEBT: Exploring the data

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - There is an enormous amount of data to contend with when investigating college debt in America.

One of our primary sources for the Degree of Debt investigation was the College Scorecard, a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education and released by the Obama Administration earlier this year. The Scorecard is designed "to increase transparency, putting the power in the hands of the public - from those choosing colleges to those improving college quality - to see how well different schools are serving their students."

To accomplish that, Education Dept. archivists compiled 1,743 pieces of information for each of 7,703 schools across the country, private and public, for-profit and non-profit – for 2015, alone. And they produced those sets by year, as far back as 1996. Data on that scale can break the back of even widely-used spreadsheet applications such as Excel.

While FOX 8 investigators were able to work with this huge data set, we also enjoyed support from our associates at Investigative Reporters & Editors, a non-profit group that offers many resources to journalists.

"The Department of Education's raw 'College Scorecard' is a labyrinth of information," IRE's Brett Murphy wrote last September, "everything from enrollment demographics and SAT scores to repayment rates and post-graduate earnings."

IRE researchers produced a simplified Scorecard database, as well as a comprehensive "data dictionary" that explained the information DOE provided, and step-by-step guidance on how to analyze the data. IRE made that data available and free to journalists of any experience level: "Using the data, newsrooms can track and compare schools' accessibility across different income levels alongside performance metrics and ultimate outcomes."

While the College Scorecard data (which you can review and download at this link) provided critical insights on such factors as completion and repayment rates for the thousands of colleges listed, we needed another data set to determine default rates at these schools. DOE also maintains that information, but in a separate database.

The "Official Cohort Default Rates for Schools" database is kept by DOE's Federal Student Aid office.

"A cohort default rate is the percentage of a school's borrowers who enter repayment on certain Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program or William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program loans during a particular federal fiscal year (FY), October 1 to September 30, and default or meet other specified conditions prior to the end of the second following fiscal year," reads a summary statement on the database's landing page.

As of this writing, the latest available cohort is from FY 2013. FOX 8 compiled cohort default rate data from that year and the three previous fiscal years to establish trend lines and patterns in analysis.

We drew from a third DOE source, the department's list of schools under "Heightened Cash Monitoring".

"Heightened Cash Monitoring is a step that FSA can take with institutions to provide additional oversight for a number of financial or federal compliance issues, some of which may be serious and others that may be less troublesome," reads a summary by DOE's Federal Student Aid office.

FSA lists five Louisiana schools for Heightened Cash Monitoring as of Sept. 1:

  • Blue Cliff College, Metairie
  • D'Jay's Institute of Cosmetology and Esthiology, Baton Rouge
  • Fortis College, Baton Rouge
  • Mid City College, Baton Rouge
  • Setting the Standard Barbering and Natural Hair Academy, Shreveport

The HCM list is updated every three months, and you can view it at this link.

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