Thoughts on the Power of Data Visualizations in Public Health Education


These new dashboards from the Center for Public Health Systems at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health shed light on federal administrative data on postsecondary education in the United States.

Everyone has a dashboard these days. Whether used for public communication or as a means of business analysis, data visualizations are everywhere (as, it seems, are data visualization memes). During the COVID-19 response, most public health agencies across the country implemented a dashboard of one sort or another to standardize data reporting and serve as a “source of truth.” for partners, media and the public. Just a few years ago, these dashboards might not have been possible, but software packages like Tableau and Power BI have seemingly created a new industry in a short time. Just as these packages provide value to businesses or health departments to understand important data points and trends, we at the Center for Public Health Systems at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health believe that ‘they can help shed light on topics too seldom discussed. treasure troves of administrative data that the federal government collects on post-secondary education in the United States. That’s why we launched four new dashboards. Join us, right?

Map of public health programs

Redistricting data recently released by the US Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics can be combined in Tableau to show a stark reality: In much of the country, public health graduates do not reflect the communities in which their institutions sit. Even though public health is more racially and ethnically diverse than other graduate degrees overall, representation in student bodies (and faculty and staff) is often lacking. This view shows master’s graduates, although data is also viewable by institutions for other degree levels.

Public Health Graduates in the United States

I have worked with the Integrated Post-Secondary Data System (IPEDS) for nearly a decade trying to better understand the trajectory of public health education in the United States. Although plagued with (mis)reporting issues, the dataset is by far the most comprehensive post-secondary dataset available in the country. For public health in particular, the field is fortunate to also have ASPPH’s long-running annual data collection program, which also tracks degree awards (but only for ASPPH members). This allowed triangulation of degrees awarded and examination of changes in awarding trends, as with degree accreditation, as noted above.

Debt and income

Quietly, a few years ago, the federal government began releasing median degree debt and median earnings one year after graduation for college graduates across the country. The Wall Street Journal did a good job releasing this dataset, but it’s one of the few outlets to do so. We think this data is fascinating – by institution and by degree level, information that was once highly confidential is now publicly available. Associate it with other information such as, for example, the recent US News and World Report data, and you have an interesting data visualization yourself.

Undergraduate Public Health

With the exception of COVID-19, perhaps no story in public health education has been as hot as the rise of undergraduate public health in recent years. Despite fewer than 1,500 undergraduate degrees awarded in 2004, compared to 6,500 master’s degrees, as of 2020 undergraduate public health has overtaken master’s as the most awarded degree type. Today, more than 18,000 undergraduate degrees are awarded each year. This growth is largely attributable to BIPOC students, as seen in the data visualization above.

Our hope is that making this data not only publicly available, but usable by interested members of the public means that the field will gain new insights and be compelled to grapple with difficult questions. Each dashboard is available on the Center’s website here – hope you enjoy!

Author Profile

JP Leider

JP Leider, PhD, is director of the Center for Public Health Systems at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a member of the JPHMP editorial board. It is available at leider(at)umn(dot)edu.


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