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New College Scorecard: Will Students Use It?

Published:  February 13, 2013
Screen Capture of the University of Wisconsin's College Scorecard.

In last night’s State of the Union, President Obama announced the release of the College Scorecard, a consumer information resource that helps students and families compare colleges and universities on important measures such as costs and graduation rates. “Colleges must do their part to keep costs down…” said President Obama, “Parents and students can use [the Scorecard] to compare schools based on simple criteria: Where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” While better information is not the cure to solving all problems with student access and success in higher education, it can lead to more informed decision-making and, in turn, improved outcomes. But information only helps students and families if it gets into their hands and they know how to use it.

The College Scorecard is not a new initiative. In last year’s State of the Union, President Obama put higher education “on notice” saying that, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” In the days that followed he announced a new higher education reform package that included two new consumer information tools: the Scorecard and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet. After thousands of public comments on both, the finalized Shopping Sheet was released in July and now the new Scorecard is out today. I’ve already written extensively about the Shopping Sheet, but what will the new Scorecard mean for students and families?

The Good

Simple, Graphical Representation of Data. A college’s scorecard only has five data “buckets:” Costs, Graduation Rate, Loan Default Rate, Median Borrowing, and Employment. Under Median Borrowing, for example, students see a gauge that shows whether the institution has low, medium, or high median borrowing. In the text—again, very concise—they can learn the median federal loans students borrow, and what the 10-year standard repayment for that debt would be. It’s nice to see that the Department of Education resisted the urge to load the screen with data. In this case, the beauty is in the simplicity.

Critical Employment Data (Soon). A recent survey by Pew and the Lumina Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say getting a good job is a very important reason for getting education beyond high school. But other than anecdotal data provided by institutions, it can be nearly impossible for students and families to understand employment outcomes of specific universities. Although the Scorecard cannot provide this information right now given current data capabilities, it is one of the major categories on the Scorecard. A placeholder says, “The U.S. Department of Education is working to provide information about the average earnings of former undergraduate students who borrowed Federal Student loans.” In this case, what gets measured gets done. By putting an employment section on the Scorecard, the Department is sending strong messages to institutions, students, families, and taxpayers that employment data is necessary to understand the outcomes of our institutions of higher education.

The Bad

Sticky Search Functionality. While the landing page for the Scorecard looks relatively simple from my first few minutes using it, I already ran into problems. If you type in a college name you must select the specific college from a list that starts to populate below (like Google search). Otherwise, you may land on the wrong page. When I typed in my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin and hit enter, it took me to the University of Wisconsin Colleges. Not the same institution. This will probably be a problem for students searching for public colleges and universities in systems with satellite campuses—overwhelmingly where many students go to school. Also, when you try to drill down and search by criteria, the simple interface quickly becomes cluttered.   

Not Printer Friendly. One of the strongest features of the first version of the Scorecard was that students, parents, counselors, and college access professionals could print it out or download it as a one-page infosheet. Among other things, this would allow students to easily compare the colleges they’re choosing between. The new Scorecard is not as printer friendly (prints on two pages) or downloadable (no option for .pdf of other format).    

Opaque Comparison Groups. On most of the gauges for the five data “buckets,” there is a scale of low/medium/high compared to similar institutions. There is no indication of how the Department is defining those similar institutions, or if this a national comparison. A little transparency here would go a long way.

The Ugly

No Simple Definitions of Key Terms. One of my biggest concerns with government consumer information tools is the assumption that students and families already have enough knowledge about higher education to understand what they are seeing. Higher education involves a lot of jargon. What does default mean? What is a 10-year repayment plan? What is a Federal student loan? The Scorecard misses an opportunity here to raise overall higher education “literacy” for families.

No Dissemination Strategy. Consumer information will only help students and families make better decisions if the information gets into their hands. We already have College Navigator, Net Price Calculators, the College Affordability and Transparency Center, and now this. Why would they be more likely to use this over something like College Board’s Big Future? All Title IV institutions should be required to put a link to a printer-friendly version of the Scorecard on their main homepage and include it with a student’s admissions package.

Bottom Line

While the Scorecard does provide simplified, standardized information about important outcomes for students and families, it falls short of having major impact because of its “seek-and-find” nature. For information to affect any decision-making process, students and families need it well before they make the actual decision. This is difficult and will only happen if there is legislation that the Scorecard be mandatory on all college homepages and sent to every student who requests information materials. That will be an uphill battle, but a necessary one for students.

Stay tuned to Higher Ed Watch for continuing coverage of President Obama's State of the Union.


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