Collaboration makes national news with Tuition Tracker

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Jane Nicholes

Collaboration among two newspapers, a nonprofit organization and a writers association resulted in the creation of Tuition Tracker, an online research tool that helps people determine the true cost of college.

It's also proven to be a gift to newspapers around the country. Tuition Tracker raises questions about the increasing cost of going to college, especially why the increases appear to hit low-income families harder. Local and statewide stories are ready for reporting because the data is already collected.

"It was really interesting how many different organizations were collaborating on this," said Holly Hacker, an education reporter and data specialist with The Dallas Morning News. Other participants were the Omaha World-Herald, The Hechinger Report and the Education Writers Association.

"Don't feel that you have to do it yourself," she said.

The so-called "sticker price" is the total annual cost of tuition, fees, room and board, books and other expenses for full-time entering freshmen, compiled for the 2008-2012 school years. At some private universities in particular, this number can exceed $50,000 annually and scare off many a prospective scholar.

The net price, however, is a more realistic estimate, because it subtracts grants and scholarships offered by government sources or the schools. Notably, it does not include student loans.

Tuition Tracker publishes net prices for various income categories over the four years. It reveals wide differences in the net price for higher-income students and the net price for lower-income students whose families make less than $30,000.

"Even though overall, students from higher-income brackets were paying more after grants and scholarships, the biggest increases, the dollar increases, often were falling upon students whose families make less than $30,000 a year," Hacker said. "You had the cost increases fall much more on lower-income students. So that was really surprising to us."

The project group released data to some other newspapers in advance of publication in early March, so those papers could get stories ready to run on the same Sunday, Hacker said.

Southern newspapers that picked up the package or localized their own include the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.), the Miami Herald and The Tuscaloosa News in Alabama.

Hacker compares the collaboration to assembling a "dream team" for a fantasy baseball league. The EWA received a grant for a project using education data. The association approached Hacker "because I am a lifelong data fiend," she said. Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report was the co-author of the package, and a web developer from the Omaha newspaper teamed with Dallas people to develop the Tuition Tracker website.

Hacker said the data was readily available from the Department of Education, but as far as the group knows, no media outlet had studied all four years. She had strong support within the newsroom. "It was the top editors saying, 'This is important and we're going to commit some resources to make this happen.'"

Tuition Tracker users seem to spend a relatively long time on the website, presumably researching several colleges and universities at one time to compare costs, Hacker said. Some schools have had to explain themselves when the numbers show significant differences in how students from different income groups are awarded financial aid.


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In such a complex project, organization and communication among team members are especially important when multiple organizations have different deadlines and priorities, Hacker said.

"Think of everything that you need to do," she said. "Fill out a timeline, as specific as you can. What we did was pretty much once a week, go to the timeline. What's been checked off?

"Estimate how long something will take. We ended up having to revise our timeline a couple of times."

In hindsight, the team should have realized sooner that significant web development would be needed, Hacker said. Academic schedules, such as winter breaks, also created delays.

Such a project needs a chief, she said. "You've got to have one person who is ultimately in charge." That person keeps everyone on track, keeps up with the to-do list and keeps track of publication plans so that large Sunday packages aren't scheduled on the same week.

Different versions of the package were published. The first final version was "way too long," for the Dallas paper to run in print, Hacker said, so it went online and a shorter version went into the newspaper. Likewise, Hacker needed to write a separate story focusing on Texas colleges and universities and she had to make sure Texas voices were part of the main bar.

"It was a way to get the dialogue happening nationally, from Seattle to Miami," she said.

For more information, contact Holly Hacker at hhacker@dallasnews.com.

Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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