Five Years In, The College Scorecard’s Scorecard

In 2013’s State of the Union address then-President Barack Obama announced a new .gov website that aimed to help prospective students find “the most bang for [their] educational buck.” By answering a short list of questions, users can discover the financial burden and earning potential of any campus or online college from sea to shining sea. Now five years and four updates later, the College Scorecard gets its own grades.

A Helpful Tool for Students

Scorecard was created as an unbiased quick-reference resource for prospective students. It compliments collegiate reviews found on other online resources like US News Rankings and Reviews.

The government’s site focuses more specifically on projected student financial burdens than getting granular on areas of study offered by each institution. Don’t look to the College Scorecard to help you decide your major — it’s not built for that. But if you answer questions like state and zip, private vs public, profit vs non-profit, and optional religious affiliation, you’ll get a concise, unbiased comparison between colleges.

The tool provides more than just financial information, Scorecard presents each school’s diversity breakdowns and most popular programs offered among other metrics. This information can be helpful but it’s likely not the qualitative information desired for those with a specific major in mind.

Each search lists graduation rate compared to the national average, graduate salary after attending and typical total debt on the selected school’s Scorecard. These amounts can sway an individual’s decision between institutions, and its inclusion is seen as a great victory for the American Association of Community Colleges. “AACC has long advocated for making earnings data available to potential students, and so this is an extremely important development,” explains David Baime, the Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Policy Analysis at AACC.

Institutions Critique Scorecard

But it’s community colleges that get hit the hardest with “invariably skewed” data, as Baime puts it. Community colleges have a higher percentage of students receiving Pell Grants as opposed to taking out federal student loans. This results in Scorecard delivering skewed calculations on potential debt burdens. Baime says this misrepresentation of data is the core issue with Scorecard, adding it “in some ways is a victim of its own ambitions.”

Worse still, the graduate salary metric only aggregates graduates who took out loans. This ends up hurting the appearance of institutions like the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. The school’s spokeswoman Jessica Kennedy notes that it “excludes about half of our graduates.”

Scorecard’s Title IV Problem

The root of this problem is that this government tool sources data only from Title IV’s student aid recipient database. Title IV is a portion of the Higher Education Act of 1965, governing all federal student financial aid programs.

Using this data also requires each school to individually watchdog the veracity of data given to the public through Scorecard.

It’s this oversimplification of academia with Scorecard using potentially out-of-date information that’s led to some schools crying foul. “There will be flaws to any such system … it looks helpful and straightforward, but the reality is you have to read the fine print,” says Kristin Tichenor SVP at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The concern presented by the AACC is that there is no special earmarking in Title IV’s data aggregated into the Scorecard’s results to differentiate Pell Grants, which don’t require repayment from student loan debt. Lacking this distinction may damage the long-term credibility of this tool. It may also confuse prospective students who might not understand the College Scorecard’s simplified presentation of facts and figures.

Scorecard’s focus on national norms might also confuse students looking at schools that cater to a specific demographic. Like the women’s college Trinity Washington University in Washington D.C. which has a student body that is made up of 95 percent black and Hispanic students. Trinity’s president, Pat McGuire concludes “[Scorecard] would suggest to consumers that everybody would be better off going to Georgetown or to Harvard than to a school like Trinity.”

While the data pulled from Title IV may be technically unbiased, the presentation lacks the fidelity necessary to accurately represent the positives of smaller or specialty institutions.

Takeaway

In the end, it’s up to each prospective student to conclude the value of the College Scorecard. The updated version presents a clean interface and easily readable data for many schools across America. But due to a number of unclear caveats, users may make false conclusions about a specific school.