Posts by Michaela Ross

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.

Damian Geminder and Michaela Ross

Nut graf/news hook: The 2016 presidential election is likely to be the first since 2004 where a black candidate is not on the ballot. The national dialogue on race relations has been intensifying in recent months as case after case of police brutality targeting black males has stoked massive protests, both peaceful and violent. Criminal justice reform is almost certain to become a major issue in the next election. But will this debate affect black voter turnout, and will these black votes matter?

We will ask political scientists at Baruch College if they feel the racial tension surrounding the criminal justice reform debates will stimulate black voter turnout, despite the lack of a major-party black candidate. We will also visualize the election data from four crucial states that swung from voting Republican in 2004 to voting Democratic in 2008 – leading to the election of our current president, Barack Obama – because of strong black voter turnout.

By examining the shift between these elections, we can see just how much black votes matter. In 2004, the Republican incumbent, George W. Bush, won the presidency with 11 percent of the black vote, to Democratic challenger John Kerry’s 88 percent. But in 2008, the election swung to the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, who won 95 percent of the black vote and the presidency. Blacks made up 11 percent of the 2004 electorate and increased their share to 13 percent in 2008.

We plan to show black voter trends over the last few elections using a line graph, with a particular focus on the four swing states Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. We will also present a state map showing how black votes correlate with Democratic support county-by-county.

The Data:

Specialists we have contacted:
The following are Baruch College professors:

Micheline Blum: Director of Baruch College Survey Research (BCSR). Before founding her own firm, Blum was manager of Polling & Election Operations at NBC News for 11 years. She is President-Elect of the New York Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and teaches survey research at Baruch. She has also served on the national AAPOR Council and is an elected member of the Market Research Council.

Doug Muzzio: Professor of Political Science. He has taught courses in U.S. urban politics and government, leadership and strategy, campaigns and elections, and public opinion and public policy.

David Birdsell: Dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. He serves on the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee and on the boards of the VCG Governance Matters and the New York Census Research Data Center. He is a member of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration’s Executive Council.

Their press relations contacts are:
Manny Romero, 646-660-6141,

Mercedes Sanchez, 646-660-6112,

Michaela Ross

Nut Graf/News Hook: Since the recession, Americans who once were quick to charge their credit cards have been collectively paying down their debt. American families’ median credit card debt went down from $2,800 in 2010 to $2,300 in 2013. Meanwhile, the personal savings rate has increased from 2.5% pre-recession to 5.5% in 2015. Now, with the Fed looking to raise interest rates in the next few months, rates on consumer debt — including credit cards — may also increase, and some economists are predicting that more cautious consumers will continue to pay down credit card debt and spend more modestly.

Description of Data and Link: Every 3 years, the Federal Reserve surveys American households about their finances. The percentage of Americans with credit card debt, as well as their current median balances, can be seen on tabs with “Table 89 01”-“Table 13 01” here. The credit card data is further broken down by percentile of income, age, education, number of dependents, race, work status, geographical region, occupation, housing status and whether they live in an urban area. The data stretches from 1989-2013, and was released in fall of 2014.
(see attached Excel sheet)

Bulletin with the latest survey:

Sources: I have already spoken to Peter Morici, economist at the University of Maryland about consumer habits with credit cards. He believes consumers will continue not to trust credit card use — especially with credit cards issued from large banks — because they don’t trust large banks after the recession. He feels people will find other ways to finance large purchases through borrowing from family or home improvement loans, even as interest rates go up.

Contact info: 240-429-7824

I have also spoken to economist Stan Shipley at International Strategy and Investment 212-446-9474, and Louis V Crandall, economist at Wrightson ICAP 212-815-6542,

There is also discussion about cautious consumers being more wary of charging credit cards in this spring’s consumer reports.

Possible Obstacles/Angles to Explore:

I would like to compare the Fed’s data to that of TransUnion. TransUnion releases a quarterly report showing average credit card debt and delinquency by state and their data is more current than the Feds, but I believe it’s measured differently. I am contacting their offices to investigate. Here is their latest report:

And here is an interactive map of credit card debt by state made by the Washington Post in 2012 using TransUnion data: