How Students/Families Pay for College

 Lesley Lydell
Office of Institutional Research
University of Minnesota  

Institutional research offices generate and analyze a vast amount of data, and creating effective visual depictions of that data helps our ability to be effective information resources. As a research and policy analyst, I have been interested in ways to balance communicating detailed information with visual clarity, impact, and usability considerations. I created the following chart using Tableau, although it could be done in many other programs.

This visualization began with data from the annual surveys by Sallie Mae of “How America Pays for College.” These phone surveys gather detailed information from a sample of US undergraduate students and parents. The report summaries highlight an overall composite of a typical American college student’s financing, but also include more detailed findings. Examining the frequencies of usage of different college financing options can give a more nuanced picture of financing trends over time that can then be compared with local institutional records. 


After working with the data and exploring various funding trends, I analyzed the most- and least-used college funding sources, both in terms of dollar amounts and frequency of use among students and families, in separate dashboards. Although useful, I wanted to get a sense of the full scope of funding trends and how they interacted. This led to an exploration of ways to condense information into essential components to accommodate all 21 different funding sources surveyed. After standardizing the dual axes across all the different funding source charts, I eliminated any non-essential chart elements. This not only conserved much-needed space as I began increasing the number of charts on the dashboard, far beyond the usually recommended four, but added to the visual impact of the remaining information. I also adjusted line weighting, resized bar widths, and used opposing hues from a color blind-accessible palette to ensure the trend lines would be visible for end users against the bar charts.

The mainly decreasing use of college funding strategies from riskier sources, such as through credit cards and loans from home equity and retirement accounts, sounds a positive note; for institutions, however, the continued increase in students and families’ reliance on scholarships and grants highlights an ongoing challenge for years to come. 



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