09/17/2015

Revamped College Scorecard gets mixed reviews

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Two years ago, President Obama's College Scorecard received little love. Its relaunch this week looks a little better.

Education experts, including members of the AFT, support the notion of holding colleges accountable for high-quality and effective education. But the original plan to rate colleges by graduation rates and graduate salaries, and to tie those ratings to federal financial aid, was broadly regarded as unfair and counterproductive.

Round two scraps the literal "scorecard" rating as well as any link between the scorecard and federal funding. But it preserves access to published information about graduation rates and graduate salaries. The measures are designed to inform students choosing which college to attend as well as to keep colleges on point and, by extension, help students become successful after graduation.

The new College Scorecard publicly lists the average cost, graduation rate and average salary after graduation for individual colleges and universities. It lists the percentage of students using federal financial aid, their typical loan debt and how many have begun to pay off their student loans. It shows the average cost for students from different levels of family income, and the percentage of graduates who earn more than the typical high school graduate. There is also information about socioeconomic diversity, typical student test scores and programs of study.

Scorecard statistics include only students who receive financial aid, a limitation critics quickly pointed out. But Department of Education officials claim the data among those who receive financial aid is not unlike the data from students overall.

Critics have also noted the scorecard does not break down earnings or graduation rates by major, or by state—an important consideration, since salaries can vary widely depending on geographical region. Salaries are tracked 10 years after enrolling in college, not after graduation, and so include students who may have dropped out. Faculty are not taken into consideration at all, so the percentage of tenure-track and contingent faculty, an important indicator of a college's commitment to investing to support high-quality teaching, is left out. And the scorecard's effort to hold for-profits responsible for making good on their promises could have been stronger by listing those that are under investigation for fraud.

Taking a broader view, others have objected to the laser focus on salaries and monetary success, with no regard for the less quantifiable benefits a liberal arts education can offer.

Overall, education policymakers are giving the scorecard mixed reviews, acknowledging it as one step toward possible improvement with descriptions such as "a roadmap," "a down payment" and "a first draft."

What is clear is that the information the scorecard is making available will grow legs: It is readily accessible to anyone with access to the Internet, and it is being folded into other college search programs, such as ScholarMatch, StartClass and College Abacus.

[Virginia Myers]