College & Workforce Readiness

New Federal College Data Elicit Praise, Skepticism

September 29, 2015 5 min read
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With the federal government’s updated College Scorecard, the public now has access to information on the earnings, debt load, and graduation rates of former students at more than 7,000 individual public and private colleges.

Although not the rating system that the Obama administration promised, the new statistics added to the College Scorecard website earlier this month aim to help prospective students evaluate colleges on their own with a focus on value.

However, just how valuable the newly revised website—collegescorecard.gov—is to students or their guidance counselors will depend on whether they use and understand it, experts said. Some cautioned that the scorecard has significant shortcomings. Others said they hope it will encourage consumers to comparison-shop and prod colleges to produce successful graduates.

“The data are incredibly useful. For far too long, students, families, and counselors have been operating largely in the dark when it comes to college outcomes,” said Amy Laitinen, the director of higher education at the New America Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that pushed for the college-information tool.

The new data reveal patterns at postsecondary schools that can steer students toward institutions that provide the best return on their investments, she said, adding that research shows that that is the main reason students go to college.

Officials at the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents, expressed relief that the government dropped a proposal to rank individual colleges, but took issue with the data released. They said colleges did not have a chance to review the material and the scorecard may not be meaningful to users because it draws on data collected on only a subset of college-goers.

“This is not the fault of the Department of Education, it’s just the information they have access to makes it impossible for them to provide a totally complete and fully accurate picture,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the ACE.

Still, school counselors, such as Melissa Beverly, at Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, Ariz., welcomed the additional information and said counselors will educate families on how to appropriately use the data.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle, but just a piece,” said Beverly, who hopes the scorecard leads to more questions about specific college costs.

Calculating Earnings

With the updated scorecard, the government added post-college earnings by institution based on tax records. Users can see the proportion of former college students earning more than $25,000 (the average of annual earnings of high school graduates) six years after enrolling and the median earnings of students 10 years after enrollment.

Many contend the data are too general because they lump all students together, regardless of their major or whether they graduated. A former student who majored in psychology may make $30,000 a year, and an engineer might earn $80,000, said Mark S. Schneider, a vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research. “Counselors have a fundamental role in translating the data,” he said. “It’s not the right level of information.”

Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, added: “It doesn’t so much matter which institution you go to. By far the more powerful effect is field of study.”

He suggests that counselors turn to state-level data, where available, for information on the income of graduates from particular colleges by occupation.

Hartle said rather than looking at an economic return at a specific point, such as six or 10 years after starting college, the impact of postsecondary education often is viewed over a lifetime.

Going Into Debt

The new scorecard uses data from the National Student Loan Data System to show median cumulative loan debt, repayment rate, and completion and transfer rates, by various student subgroups.

Some maintain the data are limited because the scorecard only includes records of those who receive federal financial aid, not those who borrow privately or pay their own way. That excludes about 40 percent of college students.

Carnevale calls the measure a “vast improvement” that can be helpful in cluing students in on whether colleges are graduating people who earn enough to pay back their loans. Although it only reflects federal aid recipients, the data set is large enough to be representative, he added.

Laitinen, of New America, said the new system allows counselors to see how individual colleges are serving federal Pell Grant recipients—useful information when advising low-income students on the best match.

Counselors’ Caveats

Introducing high school seniors at Minnesota’s Minnetonka High School to the new scorecard this month, college counselor Phil Trout said many focused on the graduation rates and average annual costs.

“Everyone thinks, ‘When I go, I’m going to graduate,’ ” he said. “With high school students, it’s been a real eye-opener.”

The website’s clean and easy to navigate, said Trout, the president-elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling: “I think it was a smart move.”

However, users need to understand how items are measured, such as the fact that the scorecard calculates six-year college graduation rates. “A lot of families plan on their child graduating in four years. We need to point that out,” said Beverly of Cave Creek. Also, the graduation rates only include first-time, full-time students.

Greg Wasserman, the director of guidance at the Wheatley School in Old Westbury, N.Y., said that he likes the scorecard concept, but is skeptical about some of the data.

“If you are a novice, this is more confusing than it is helpful,” he said.

Before he is comfortable recommending it, Wasserman said, he is waiting to hear if colleges think their profiles are accurate and for the bugs to be worked out.

The Education Department also released the supporting scorecard data to allow independent analysis.

While the administration sidestepped ranking schools, the data release invites greater scrutiny of higher education and federal funding for it, said Carnevale: “Transparency is the slippery slope to accountability.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Experts Differ on the Usability of New College Scorecard Data

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