New College Scorecard All Sizzle, No Steak

Feb 14, 2013

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new tool made available by the U.S. Department of Education called the “College Scorecard.” In his own words, “…my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” Now that’s it’s unveiled and the public has been given an opportunity to play around with it, the fundamental question is: does it work?

Bluntly, no.

When you first enter the website, you can search for an institution by name, or choose one of their colorfully designed boxes which hide even more search options. You can find schools by program of study, future occupation, size, degrees offered (though advanced degrees are excluded), what kind of campus you prefer, whether or not there’s a distance learning option, and three choices for geography (zip code, state, and region). Curiously absent from the search are any criteria that would actually help you search for that “most bang for your educational buck.” It becomes less curious when you find out what information is and isn’t actually provided.

Once you’ve factored in all of your search options, you’re given a list of institutions, their location, and enrollment size. This is fairly minimal information—and it’s the only way you can view more than one institution at a time. The tool does not allow you to compare one school directly to another, at least without a lot of clicks and open windows.

Once you click on an institution, you are brought to a page of information which includes the net cost of attendance, how much they’ve raised their tuition from 2007 to 2009, and a “gas gauge” that demonstrates whether that cost is low, medium, or high relative to all other schools. It does not break down how they arrive at the net cost of attendance (e.g. the breakdown of tuition, room, board, and additional fees), though it provides a link to the college so you can figure it out for yourself.

The next piece of information provided is the institution’s graduation rate for first-time, full-time students within 150% of normal time for four-year institutions. For two-year and below, they also provide the transfer rate in the fine print. While the site notes that, “This may not represent all undergraduates that attend this institution,” it does not disclose what proportion of students this number actually represents, which would be easy enough to do. Here again, the only comparison to other institutions is whether or not this is high, medium, or low.

The next bit of information is the institution’s loan default rate, which is defined as the percentage of students who fail to repay their student loans within three years—all you get here is the institution’s default rate and the national average. There is no justification as to why that should matter or why a student should care. Nor is there an explanation of how the metric is defined and no context for when those defaults happened or what year or years that figure represents. There is nothing but two numbers here.

Finally, the Scorecard includes a line on median borrowing, which represents what the typical student would expect to borrow in federal loans at this institution. For this section, the Scorecard provides how much a family would borrow in federal loans and what that number would translate to in terms of a monthly payment over a 10-year term. That would be somewhat useful if the “typical student” were defined. A school that enrolls a substantial number of international or wealthy students is going to have a much different “median” student than one that predominantly serves low-income students, which would naturally skew the numbers a great deal. Thus, a student viewing the page has no concept whatsoever of what that would mean for them or how much they would be expected to borrow. To its detriment, the Scorecard also fails to provide any information on how much students privately borrow or acknowledge private borrowing even exists.

There’s also a placeholder for employment information, which states that, “The U.S. Department of Education is working to provide information about the average earnings of former undergraduate students at [institution] who borrowed Federal student loans.”

And that’s all, folks.

Astoundingly, the new College Scorecard isn’t even the best college search tool provided by the U.S. Department of Education. The only thing that the new College Scorecard provides that the Department of Education’s own College Navigator doesn’t is loan default rate information, and even there, what they give you is incredibly lacking. Yes, it’s prettier than College Navigator, but it’s arguably no more user-friendly. But comparing the two in terms of power is a bit like comparing a Tonka Truck to a Mack Truck. College Navigator has all the search options the new tool does, and quite a few more. More importantly, it allows you to easily compare institutions side-by-side, which is easily the most perplexing omission from the Scorecard.

The biggest problem is that in no way, shape, or form does the College Scorecard actually inform you about the “best bang for your buck.” Maybe it will get closer to doing so if the Department of Ed. is ever successful at adding employment data, but judging from what currently exists, it seems likely that they’ll only scratch the surface here as well. There’s no information about the quality of education provided in terms of whether or not students actually learn. There’s no hint of program-level data of any kind, which can vary substantially even within the institution. You can’t find out how students similar to yourself fare at this institution and after graduation. This is the kind of information that would actually be helpful to students, the kind of information that students deserve

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