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May 2, 2016

Makeover Monday: The Rising Cost of Tuition in the United States


This week for Makeover Monday, we look at an article and viz from Online MBA Page about the cost of college tuition in the United States.

What works well?

  • Very clear subtitle that describes the visualisation
  • Used a two-color diverging scale to identify the change
  • Nice labels above the color legend to ensure you know what is good and what is bad
  • Good use of red for bad
  • Including the US Avg for context
  • Using % change provides better context than the raw numbers

What doesn’t work well?

  • The irregular state shapes - is a map even necessary?
  • The color bins are not equal size - notice how the first two are different sizes than the rest
  • Bar chart should be rotated 90 degrees to make it easier to read
  • What year does the bar chart represent? I can’t find anywhere that tells us.
  • Do you really need the ranking numbers below the bar chart?

The data that was available goes back 12 years, so why did the author only choose to look at the change over the last 5 years? For my version, I’m going to consider all of the years because I think that provides better context as to how much tuition has changed.

I started by looking at maps. I created this small multiples version, which shows the difference for each state to the U.S. average year by year.

This doesn’t work well because all of the maps basically look the same. For the most part, the northeast is higher than the national average consistently. It also doesn’t allow me to easily compare one state to the others.

I tried a hexmap and circle maps, but none of them worked well for me. In other words, just because we have geographical data, it doesn’t mean we HAVE to create a map. For me, what’s more important is including context. How can I best compare the States? How can I compare to the U.S. Average? What’s the best way for me to show how the cost of tuition has changed?

Given all of these questions, I decided that a series of three line charts were the best way to go for my story. In this view I can show:

  1. Yearly tuition rates for each State
  2. Highlight a selected State, but include the others for context
  3. Include the U.S. average for context
  4. Show the change over the last 12 years
  5. Show the variance to the U.S. average

Each of these provide much greater context than the original visualisation and tell a more compelling story about the escalating rise in tuition across most of the U.S.


  1. Here's my take on this. What do you guys think?!/vizhome/AverageTuitionintheUnitedStates_2/Dashboard5

  2. While the small multiples map doesn't answer all of the questions, a map could be paired with your historical data in a line chart. This way the user can quickly understand how the state in question compares to the rest for a specific year. With minimal interaction the user could drill down to the historical data and better understand how tuition is trending in that state vs the average.