Michaela Ross

May graduates might be celebrating this month, but next month many will have another thing coming: student loan repayments. Student loan debt in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the last decade, from a total balance of $350 billion in 2004 to nearly $1.2 trillion dollars in 2014, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Fed reports that the average student loan debt now stands at $26,700 per borrower. The New York Times has partnered with the Institute for College Access and Success and other debt research and advocacy groups to create useful tools and visualizations to track this growing burden:

The Student Debt Repayment Calculator:

My favorite visualization is the student loan repayment calculator, created in May 2014. The user is able to enter their student debt owed, or search for the average debt owed by graduates of their alma mater in 2013. Next, they enter the interest rate of their loan and finally they chose if they’d like to pay it off over the standard period of 10 years, or a shorter or longer period.

The real magic comes in the “monthly payment” slider. Borrowers can increase or decrease this payment amount and instantly see in the graphic how it will shorten or lengthen their years of repayment. It also displays how the total interest paid on the loan will increase or decrease with this variable. The right side of the screen displays the salary amount one needs to make in order to keep payments at 20% of their discretionary income.

I think this visualization/calculator epitomizes a service-orientated approach to data. The Times has taken a calculation that many borrowers find very difficult to compute on their own and simplified it in a user-friendly format. It actually could affect if people choose to take out loans or how they choose to budget their repayment, and may even save some of them from defaulting.

    What works:

-Highly individualized
-Highly interactive
-Aesthetic is simple
-Dashboard-like format makes all data visible at once
-Labels are used sparingly, but aid in understanding because of close proximity
-Incredibly simple
-Practical use

    What doesn’t:

-Colors used don’t show enough contrast to make them pop out (especially since the colors used in the triangular graphic match the colors of the corresponding values in the sidebar)
-School search bar doesn’t appear to function
-Quotes from expert sources clutter the right side of the graphic

Average Graduate Debt and Tuition Costs Tracker:

This second graphic, created in May 2012, is a bit more complicated to understand and use. The landing page shows a chart with blue dots (representing public colleges and universities) and orange dots (representing private schools) on a grid pattern. By rolling over the dots, one sees the name of the school the dot represents as well as the average student debt at graduation and average tuition and fees for 2010. The x axis displays the annual cost of tuition and fees, and the y axis displays the average graduate debt. The dots are therefore laid out on the grid according to where they fall with these two measures. The size of the dots reflects the schools’ enrollment.

There are several ways to manipulate the chart. One can search for their college or university in the search bar and its corresponding dot is highlighted. One can also limit the amount of dots shown on the chart by public or private, enrollment size, graduation rate, share of graduates with debt or athletic conference of the school. These options are in drop-down menus to the left of the chart.

A timeline slider above these drop-down lists allows the viewer to watch the dots in their customized chart to shift over time from 2004-2010.

A zoom slider on the right side of the screen lets the viewer get a closer look at dots that are close together.

In the lower left portion of the screen, one can enter their personal debt upon graduation and their graduation year. A horizontal line is drawn across the chart representing where one’s school would fall. The dots above the line represent schools where graduates average higher debt.

The graphic can also be switched from chart to map mode. The drop-down menus still allow one to limit the dots shown by private or public schools, enrollment, etc. The map mode does not allow for customization according to the viewer’s personal debt, like chart mode does.

    What works:

-The chart mode allows viewers to pick up on trends quickly, like the concentration of public schools at -the low end of the debt/tuition spectrum.
-Highly interactive
-Fairly strong level of personalization
-Timeline slider dramatizes trends clearly for viewer

    What doesn’t:

-The learning curve for the user to understand and interact with the chart is more challenging, and some people might lose interest
-The map mode seems to add another layer of complexity without adding real value to understanding the data
-The data is limited to schools that reported their data to the research institute used, so it excludes many graduates

Although these two visualizations by the Times were made in different years, they compliment each other in their content. They also allow viewers to get a better idea of where they stand compared to other graduates in the U.S. and their student debt.