Interpret machine learning models: Predicting student debt

Application exercise

April 23, 2024

# packages for wrangling data and the original models

# packages for model interpretation/explanation
library(rattle) # fancy tree plots

# set random number generator seed value for reproducibility


Student debt in the United States has increased substantially over the past twenty years. In this application exercise we will interpret the results of a set of machine learning models predicting the median student debt load for students graduating in 2020-21 at four-year colleges and universities as a function of university-specific factors (e.g. public vs. private school, admissions rate, cost of attendance).


Load the documentation for rcis::scorecard to identify the variables used in the models.

Import models

We have estimated three distinct machine learning models to predict the median student debt load for students graduating in 2020-21 at four-year colleges and universities. Each model uses the same set of predictors, but the algorithms differ. Specifically, we have estimated

  • Random forest
  • Penalized regression
  • 10-nearest neighbors

All models were estimated using tidymodels. We will load the training set, test set, and ML workflows from data/scorecard-models.Rdata.

# load Rdata file with all the data frames and pre-trained models

Create explainer objects

In order to generate our interpretations, we will use the DALEX package. The first step in any DALEX operation is to create an explainer object. This object contains all the information needed to interpret the model’s predictions. We will create explainer objects for each of the three models.

Your turn: Review the syntax below for creating explainer objects using the explain_tidymodels() function. Then, create explainer objects for the random forest and \(k\) nearest neighbors models.

# use explain_*() to create explainer object
# first step of an DALEX operation
explainer_glmnet <- explain_tidymodels(
  model = glmnet_wf,
  # data should exclude the outcome feature
  data = scorecard_train |> select(-debt),
  # y should be a vector containing the outcome of interest for the training set
  y = scorecard_train$debt,
  # assign a label to clearly identify model in later plots
  label = "penalized regression"

# explainer for random forest model
explainer_rf <- explain_tidymodels(
  model = TODO,
  data = scorecard_train |> select(-debt),
  y = scorecard_train$debt,
  label = "TODO"

# explainer for nearest neighbors model
explainer_kknn <- explain_tidymodels(
  model = TODO,
  data = scorecard_train |> select(-debt),
  y = scorecard_train$debt,
  label = "TODO"

Permutation-based feature importance

The DALEX package provides a variety of methods for interpreting machine learning models. One common method is to calculate feature importance. Feature importance measures the contribution of each predictor variable to the model’s predictions. We will use the model_parts() function to calculate feature importance for the random forest model. It includes a built-in plot() method using ggplot2 to visualize the results.

# generate feature importance measures
vip_rf <- model_parts(explainer_rf)

# visualize feature importance

Your turn: Calculate feature importance for the random forest model using 100, 1000, and all observations for permutations. How does the compute time change?

# N = 100
  model_parts(explainer_rf, N = 100)

# default N = 1000

# all observations
  model_parts(explainer_rf, N = NULL)

Add response here.

Your turn: Calculate feature importance for the random forest model using the ratio of the raw change in the loss function. How does this differ from the raw change?

# calculate ratio rather than raw change
model_parts(explainer_rf, type = "ratio") |>

Add response here.


Your turn: Calculate feature importance for the penalized regression and \(k\) nearest neighbors using all observations for permutations. How do they compare to the random forest model?

# random forest model
vip_rf <- model_parts(explainer_rf, N = TODO)

# compare to the glmnet model
vip_glmnet <- model_parts(explainer_glmnet, N = TODO)

# compare to the kknn model
vip_kknn <- model_parts(explainer_kknn, N = TODO)

Add response here.

Your turn: Calculate feature importance for the random forest model three times using N = 100, changing the random seed value before each calculation. How do the results change? How does that compare to N = 1000?

# calculate random forest feature importance thrice
model_parts(explainer_rf, N = TODO) |> plot()

model_parts(explainer_rf, N = TODO) |> plot()

model_parts(explainer_rf, N = TODO) |> plot()

Add response here.

Partial dependence plots

In order to generate partial dependence plots, we will use model_profile(). This function calculates the average model prediction for a given variable while holding all other variables constant. We will generate partial dependence plots for the random forest model using the netcost variable.

# basic pdp for RF model and netcost variable
pdp_netcost <- model_profile(explainer_rf, variables = "netcost")

We can visualize just the PDP, or the PDP with the ICE curves that underly the PDP.

# just the PDP

# PDP with ICE curves
plot(pdp_netcost, geom = "profiles")

By default model_profile() only uses 100 randomly selected observations to generate the profiles. Increasing the sample size may increase the quality of our estimate of the PDP, at the expense of a longer compute time.

# larger sample size
model_profile(explainer_rf, variables = "netcost", N = 500) |>
  plot(geom = "profiles")

We can also examine the PDP of a variable for distinct subgroups in the dataset. This is relevant for ML models which (either by design or the type of algorithm used) allow for interactions between predictor variables. In this case, we will examine the PDP of the net cost of attendance independently for public, private non-profit, and private for-profit institutions.

pdp_cost_group <- model_profile(explainer_rf, variables = "netcost", groups = "type")
plot(pdp_cost_group, geom = "profiles")

We also might want to generate a visualization directly from the aggregated profiles, rather than rely on DALEX to generate it for us.

# PDP for state - very hard to read
pdp_state_kknn <- model_profile(explainer_kknn, variables = "state")

# examine the data structure

# extract aggregated profiles
pdp_state_kknn$agr_profiles |>
  # convert to tibble
  as_tibble() |>
  # reorder for plotting
  mutate(`_x_` = fct_reorder(.f = `_x_`, .x = `_yhat_`)) |>
  ggplot(mapping = aes(x = `_yhat_`, y = `_x_`, fill = `_yhat_`)) +
  geom_col() +
  scale_x_continuous(labels = label_dollar()) +
  scale_fill_viridis_c(guide = "none") +
    title = "Partial dependence plot for state",
    subtitle = "Created for the k nearest neighbors model",
    x = "Average prediction",
    y = NULL


Your turn: Create PDP + ICE curves for average faculty salary using all three models. How does the role of average faculty salary differ across the models?

# create PDP + ICE curves for avgfacsal from all three models
model_profile(explainer_rf, variables = "TODO") |> plot(geom = "TODO")
model_profile(explainer_glmnet, variables = "TODO") |> plot(geom = "TODO")
model_profile(explainer_kknn, variables = "TODO") |> plot(geom = "TODO")

Add response here.

Your turn: Create a PDP for all numeric variables in the penalized regression model. How do the variables compare in terms of their impact on the model?

# create PDP for all numeric variables in glmnet model
model_profile(explainer_glmnet, variables = TODO) |>

Add response here.

Global surrogate models

In global surrogates, we estimate a simpler model to approximate the predictions of a more complex model. This can help us understand the relationships between the predictors and the outcome in the more complex model.

Demo: Fit a single decision tree to the predictions of the nearest neighbors model.

# get training set predictions from kknn model
kknn_train_preds <- bind_cols(
  predict(kknn_wf, new_data = scorecard_train)

# fit a single decision tree to the training set predictions
gs_kknn_fit <- decision_tree(min_n = 40) |>
  set_mode("regression") |>
    # exclude debt from the formula - it is the outcome of interest
    formula = .pred ~ . - debt,
    data = kknn_train_preds

# evaluate the performance of the surrogate model
  predict(gs_kknn_fit, new_data = kknn_train_preds)
) |>
  # distinguish each prediction column - which model they came from
    .pred_kknn = .pred...13,
    .pred_tree = .pred...14
  ) |>
  # estimate surrogate model performance
  metrics(truth = .pred_kknn, estimate = .pred_tree)
  sub = NULL,
  palettes = "BuGn",
  tweak = 2

Your turn: How well does the surrogate model explain the predictions of the nearest neighbors model? How do you interpret the predictions of the nearest neighbors model?

Add response here.