How We Did It

Americans owe approximately $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, according to the latest statistics from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, which is 225 percent higher than in 2006. Student loan debt is the second highest consumer debt category, higher even than credit card loans.  

This semester a group of University of Arkansas journalism students set out to research student loan debt in Arkansas. We wanted to answer a basic question: how does student loan debt affect people’s lifestyles and career choices after graduation? We wanted to understand the struggles of living with student debt, as well as why certain institutions leave some students with more debt than others. Specifically, we looked at how it affects different genders, races and people of various socioeconomic backgrounds.

Some sources we spoke with expressed frustration over how higher education is financed. Patricia Swinton, a former Philander Smith College professor, said she thought that education should not cost as much as it does. Educational institutions should be something students attend to get a better life, she said.

“It’s difficult to have a better life if your life is filled with debt and that debt is from going to college,” Swinton said.

A variety of background articles about student loan debt helped us prepare to write these stories and reach out to sources, including “Why Would They Choose For-Profit?” and “Report: Education Dept. Will End ‘Gainful’ Rules” by Inside Higher Ed, among others.

To supplement our findings, we examined reports from sources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Center for Education Statistics Fall 2015 report on Employment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries.

We built data visualizations using data statistics from College Scorecard, a website of the U.S. Department of Education, an online tool that compares the cost and value of higher education institutions in the U.S. We also looked at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. We used Microsoft Excel to filter this data and determine what demographics and types of institutions we should focus on. We then divided our findings into five separate stories regarding student loan debt in Arkansas. We used Tableau, an interactive data visualization product, to create charts, maps, graphics and story boards to share our findings in a straight-forward and visually appealing way.

Some data could not be found on College Scorecard, so to find student loan debt by race we had to use the National Center for Education Statistics Powerstats Tool.

After analyzing all of our data, we spoke with 45 sources, including current students, graduates and faculty across the state. Each of these individuals helped create a perspective on the student debt crisis in America. Some are working multiple jobs to pay off debt while supporting families, while others have accepted that they may not pay off their debt within their lifetime.

Contributors to the project included Halie Brown, Elizabeth Green, Grant Lancaster, Caitlin Lane, Katie Beth Nichols, Haley Ruiz, Kristen Smith, Samantha Van Dyke and Megan Wilson.

Instructors were Rob Wells, Gerald Jordan, Ray Minor and Brandon Bouchillon