On September 12, the U.S. Department of Education released a new online comparison tool for more than 7,000 colleges and universities.
President Obama announced this new College Scorecard during his weekly address with the statement, “Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education.”
The website fulfills President Obama’s pledge to hold institutions of higher education accountable for student outcomes by disclosing which schools provide a good economic value to students and their families. The scorecard was originally intended as a ratings plan, but, according to Inside Higher Ed, that concept met with opposition from higher education organizations like the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU).
Instead of rating schools, the scorecard focuses on just a few metrics, purportedly allowing students and parents to make informed decisions about the cost and expected returns of the colleges they are considering. The scorecard’s primary focus is on the income achievement of college graduates — that is, their earning power and loan burden post-attendance.
The database is searchable by programs and degrees as well as school location, size, and name. The information concerning post-attendance salaries is based on two years of federal data — which, significantly, reveal that less than half of college graduates are earning more than $25,000 per year. In addition to presenting median salaries for college graduates, graduation rates, and loan repayment information, the website also gives statistics concerning the number of students who are able to make progress paying off their loans within the first few years after graduating, as well as the amount of typical monthly payments for each school. Finally, the scorecard displays income levels at both six years and 10 years after graduation, plus the yearly cost of attendance at each institution.
Debate About the Data
Ryan Craig at Forbes offered that "the new College Scorecard is a milestone in higher education’s shift from an Economy of Reputation to an Economy of Data." That is, the scorecard transfers focus from a university's perceived status to hard numbers based on graduate outcomes.
Critics of the new scorecard have pointed out that the data on post-graduation income come only from graduates who took out student loans or who received Pell Grants. These data are derived from cross-referencing financial aid records with IRS figures on salary to offer a picture of how students fare after graduation. As a result, they do not capture post-graduation salary information for students who did not receive financial aid.
The American Council on Education, for instance, expressed concern that the new scorecard only focuses on students who took out loans — though it's unclear what the data on students who didn’t take out loans would offer, or the degree to which the scorecard would differ when reporting post-graduate income if students not receiving loans were included in the data set.
Other college administrators felt that the scorecard lacks nuance. The focus on income achievement and students with loans, they argued, discounts the fact that students who receive aid or borrow money are usually from lower-income households. Obama administration officials countered that they didn't see why income achievement numbers would be meaningfully biased given the data set. The scorecard, in its simplicity, aims to make plain the "affordability" and true cost — and economic benefit — of a college education at schools across the country.
Christopher Nelson, the president of St. John's College, lamented that the new scorecard focuses only on "economic" factors and doesn’t take into account "non-economic" considerations about the benefits of attending college. Nelson argued: "The highest learning is no more a commodity than one's life is a commodity. Students need an education that will help them earn a living, but they also wish for a fulfilling life, one that goes beyond any economic measure."
Nelson’s argument is, however, at odds with the growing student debt crisis. When graduates are saddled with sometimes insurmountable debt, they are often unable to ignore or move beyond the very "economic measure" that higher education is meant to transcend.
In the future, the scorecard aims to include a student achievement measurement that would incorporate outcomes that colleges themselves would voluntarily track and report.
The nation's colleges receive $150 billion federal funding for student aid per year, and they should be accountable for the economic value of the degrees they provide. Massive numbers of students are not making progress toward repaying their loans — even if they aren't technically in default. They may have loans in forbearance or that have been deferred, or they may have lower monthly payments based on their income, which means that those payments may go toward interest rather than principal amount of the loan.
The new website offers a window into those real-world numbers, which will likely prove useful to the next cohort of incoming freshmen — whether they need to take out loans or not.
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