Mapping U.S. Student Debt

Mapping U.S. Student Debt

Organisation: Washington Center for Equitable Growth (United States)

Publication Date: 04/08/2016

Size of team/newsroom:small

Description

A generation ago, student debt was a relative rarity for students and recent graduates, but now, more than 42 million Americans owe a total of $1.3 trillion in student debt. Even though it has become a central part of economic life, researchers still don’t know much about the student debt crisis, largely because the Department of Education does not publish much of the data. The premise of the Mapping Student Debt project is to fill in this gap, providing researchers, advocates, legislators, and the public alike visual access to granular data on student debt from Experian’s Summarized Credit Statistics. Through a series of zip code-level interactive maps, Mapping Student Debt allows viewers to explore the geographic distribution of a variety of student debt variables—like the degrees of average balance or delinquency rate on an outstanding loan across a zip code—and compare them to a collection of community socio-economic indicators. These localized comparisons allow us to tangibly answer questions about what student debt looks like for different groups, communities, and neighborhoods across the United States and its consequences for economic inequality.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The data presented in Mapping Student Debt is truly what makes it unique and innovative. Mapping Student Debt is the first ever research project to make visually public such granular data on the student debt and display it in a map. The way the interactive is designed, each update to the map adds another layer to the complex story of student debt. When we first released the interactive site, for example, the first map we displayed was appropriately titled “An Introduction to the Geography of Student Debt,” as it set the stage for understanding that places with high levels of student debt weren’t the ones with high loan delinquency. Users could toggle between three different layers (a zip code’s average loan balance, delinquency, or median income) and search for specific geographic areas (cities, or zip codes) to see that the national story about the student debt crisis was actually pervasive at the local level. In addition to the actual map, the article on the page outlines the main messages presented by the visualizations. So, when we introduced the second map on racial inequality and student loan delinquency, not only could users toggle between the two maps and their respective layers, but they could also read a new article about a new theme in the student debt story. Every few months, a new map (with new layers) will be added to continue to build on important elements of the student debt crisis. As a result, Mapping Student Debt achieves the goal of being primarily a public resource and a free educational tool that can be used to understand the student debt crisis and how it relates to different aspects of socio-economic inequality.

Technologies used for this project:

The Mapping Student Debt project required multiple softwares to process and visualize the data, respectively. On the data processing end, we used Stata to impute student debt variables based on the raw credit reporting data and merge in zip code-level data on community socio-economic factors from the American Community Survey. To generate the actualy map, we used Quantum GIS (QGIS) to prepare the appropriate shapefiles. We then transferred these shapefiles to MapBox, where we designed and added interactivity to the map embedded on the project’s website.
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