'A Form of Permanent Wage Theft': When the Soaring Price of College Isn’t Worth It

'A Form of Permanent Wage Theft': When the Soaring Price of College Isn’t Worth It

Publication Date: 03/16/2015

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My article for Vice News, 'A Form of Permanent Wage Theft': When the Soaring Price of College Isn’t Worth It’, started with a simple question – when is college a terrible investment? To narrow down the 7000-strong universe of US colleges, I combined several US Department of Education datasets on individual schools with details about the rates at which graduates are defaulting on their loan payments. By cross referencing schools with the most indebted students and those with the sustained high default rates, I found institutions whose degrees did not seem worth their high price tags. One school in particular repeatedly topped the list, Full Sail University. This for-profit college in Florida offers degrees in the creative industries, it is also one of the most expensive bachelor degree programs in the country despite having worse outcomes than many similar public schools. I tracked down and interviewed several former Full Sail students using social networks. Their personal narratives shocked me, including one graduate who took out a $130,000 loan to cover tuition and living expenses. Nine years later he still owes more than $100,000 despite giving up almost $1000 a month of this pay check to service the loan. I felt Full Sail was indicative of the broader universe of for-profit schools in the US. This multi-billion dollar industry is completely reliant on federal student aid money, yet successfully lobbies against effective regulatory oversight. Individual colleges often spend more on marketing than on tuition and their aggressive recruitment tactics guarantee a steady stream of new students, despite the ever rising cost of college. My article generated a lot of debate, it was shared online 976 times and received over 1000 Facebook likes, about the debt-fuelled rise in US college costs and the long-term effects for the country.

Technologies used for this project:

The main technology that let me tell this story was a MySQL server running on my laptop. I used this to combine several years’ worth of CSV files from the US Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). I then uploaded the dataset of Cohort Default Rates and joined the tables on a unique identifier for each school. I used Excel to clean up the CSV files for importing as well as to prepare data exports for a graphic designer. The resulting infographic charted school default rates by student average loan amounts, resulting in clear patterns between public schools, private not-for-profit schools and for-profit schools.
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