Colleges in Crisis

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Hechinger Report & NBC News Digital

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 4 Aug 2020

Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz, Pete D’Amato, Jon Marcus, Erin Einhorn, Joe Murphy

Project description:

Even before the pandemic, many colleges and universities were in serious financial trouble. This series, a partnership between The Hechinger Report and NBC News Digital, quantified the problem. The project used rigorous and exclusive data analysis of financial metrics for 2,662 higher education institutions and presented results in a ground-breaking interactive tool. The series included four stories detailing in depth the reasons behind these financial woes, including mismanagement by college administrators. It exposed the depth of the crisis, the impact on students and communities, and the potential for solutions. 

Impact reached:

This project clearly resonated with the public, performing exceedingly well on both NBC’s and The Hechinger Report’s websites. Reporters were contacted by many people, including higher education administrators and consultants, asking to have access to the underlying data to explore it further.

It wasn’t only the tool that received attention. The accompanying stories also generated engagement. In response to a piece by Sarah Butrymowicz about abrupt school closures, a senior analyst for the Government Accountability Office working on a report on the impact of college closures reached out to ask us to share our research on the topic. 

Techniques/technologies used:

The foundation of this project was The Hechinger Report’s interactive tool, the Financial Fitness Tracker, which was informed by methodology developed by Robert Zemsky, a University of Pennsylvania education professor; Susan Shaman, the former director of institutional research at Penn; and Susan Campbell Baldridge, a professor and former provost at Middlebury College. Their methodology draws on federal data that most schools have reported steadily over the past decade and allows public and private institutions to be scored according to similar standards. Our series and tool applied the methodology to individual schools, as the academic researchers did not, to make the scores transparent and public.   


Using Excel and Python, The Hechinger Report’s data visualization editor, Pete D’Amato, spent months translating the academic author’s methodologies into mathematical formulae and using them to programmatically analyze data for each institution. Institutional financial health was assessed in several categories, including enrollment and tuition revenue. To account for a lag in federally reported data, D’Amato projected values out to 2019-2020, the most recent academic year. He determined two thresholds – alert and warning – by taking the 20th and 10th percentile, respectively, in each category.

D’Amato then turned this data to create the reader friendly Financial Fitness Tracker using d3.js, json and jQuery. For each institution, the tool displays their long term trend in each metric and shows whether or not they’ve crossed the warning threshold. It also provides information on trends in admissions and revenues and expenses. NBC’s Joe Murphy assisted with the testing and presentation of the data.

What was the hardest part of this project?

One unusual obstacle was acquiring a deep understanding of the methodology laid out by the three academic researchers, whose work was published by Johns Hopkins University. Since those authors did not name any institutions analyzed using their methodology, it was difficult to test their analyses by comparing them to other commonly available outcome metrics. Hechinger’s Pete D’Amato put a great deal of labor into translating the authors’ methodologies into mathematical formulae in order to be able to programmatically analyze data for each institution. Additionally, this project was also made more difficult by the sheer amount of data. A lot of staff-hours were put into assembling and, more importantly, bulletproofing the final product.

This subject also required extreme care with reporting, since the appearance of financial stress within an institution could create additional stigma that would compound the problems. With that in mind, the journalists made sure to contextualize the financial difficulties within the universe of all higher education institutions, and to explain the ways in which financial difficulties have, in the past, sometimes harmed an institution and sometimes not affected the institution at all. We wanted to make sure readers knew that identifying an institution as being under stress, financially, did not necessarily mean it was at risk of closing. 

What can others learn from this project?

This project shows the importance of journalists developing transparent and easily understood metrics for gauging the relative stability of major institutions such as colleges and universities that millions of Americans consider important to their financial and personal development. While industry-specific rankings like those of U.S. News and World Reports help families make decisions for higher education, journalists can leverage analytics to make school funding and financing more easily understandable for this audience as well.

This project, and the Financial Fitness Tracker in particular, can also serve as a launching point for local stories. In fact, several NBC affiliates have already used it for that exact purpose. For instance, KXAN, the Austin affiliate of NBC News, provided robust coverage based off Hechinger’s analysis and reporting. They produced an on-air report which included a conversation between KXAN and The Hechinger Report. They also interviewed college administrators and students in central Texas—with a special callout box for our Financial Fitness Tracker as well as the longform on-air conversation.

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