U.S. Department of Education Develops College Scorecard

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by Lois Elfman

In order to accomplish President Obama’s stated goal of the United States again leading the world in college completion by the year 2020, the U.S. Department of Education continues to develop online resources with information about college affordability to assist students and families in selecting a college that meets their needs.

The Department of Education, together with the White House, is currently developing the College Scorecard, which the president announced as part of the college affordability proposal outlined in State of the Union. It will be a new tool available in the College Affordability and Transparency Center (http://collegecost.ed.gov/catc/).

“The College Scorecard is a planning tool and another resource for families that focuses on affordability and value. It provides a snapshot of an institution that would assist prospective students and families to compare colleges before they choose,” says Ajita Talwalker, special assistant in the Office of the Under Secretary/Department of Education.

The idea is that people would check out the Scorecard early in the college search process. It aims to look at five indicators: cost, graduation, student loan retainment, student loan debt and earning potential, while not overwhelming people with information at first glance. If an institution appears to be of interest and a good fit, they can explore other easily identified and accessible sites with more detailed information about the college or university.

The Scorecard will provide initial information about affordability and value. College Navigator (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/) can then provide information about the demographics of an institution, diversity, the majors offered and numerous other factors. Concurrently, the Department of Education also is working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet.

A draft of the Scorecard is currently available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/scorecard, with ample room for comments.

People are able to provide a range of comments, particularly about things that may seem unclear in the mock-up of the document. This includes phrasing of the questions, charts and layouts. Comments and questions related to cost, graduation rates and student loan debt also are welcomed.

Dr. Carlos E. Santiago, CEO of the Hispanic College Fund, notes his general support for the Scorecard, but says that a large number of Latino students are headed to community colleges after high school, and he would like to see more detailed information on two-year institutions.

“Earnings potential seems to be an impossible measure to truly capture,” he adds. “Earnings differences across disciplines, while available, provide little information for a student’s immediate employment/earnings prospects.”

Dr. Darryl G. Greer, former CEO of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities and now senior fellow at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, says it is laudable that the administration is trying to help individuals, but the Scorecard isn’t really tapping into most people’s reality.

“Any information that helps individuals access college or learn more about college opportunity—especially for first generation, low income and populations who haven’t had great access to higher education—is good,” says Greer. “On the other hand, it’s cosmetic and it’s presumptuous.

“Poor people or first-generation students need a lot more help than going to the Internet uninformed and uninstructed with no one helping them and trying to figure this out.”

Although enthusiastic about the Scorecard, Bob Giannino-Racine, CEO of ACCESS, a nonprofit organization focused on college affordability, concurs. “It’s not a great self-guided tool,” he says. “I’m not sure that in the immediate future we’re going to develop anything online or of a mobile kind of basis that isn’t going to require some human element sitting next to a young person and helping him or her navigate the different pieces and language.”

In February, ACCESS sent a memo to the White House and DOE pointing out some things they would like to see clarified on the Scorecard. Those include a differentiation between the costs of on-campus housing, off-campus housing and living at home/commuting; cost projections over the length of a degree, not just one year; a better explanation of graduation rates; much greater detail about different kinds of student loans (not just federal); and earnings potential broken down into categories.

Greer feels that many overlook the fact that for the vast majority of students, the search for a college is not national. Underserved communities that need informational resources are generally looking at local and regional colleges and universities within the state they reside.

“I’m not saying [the College Scorecard] is not worth doing, but it is not terribly useful to a first generation kid trying to go to a local community college or to a regional state college or university,” he says.

Greer sees the responsibility for information about higher education lying principally with state governments.

Giannino-Racine agrees in theory, but says, “Our federal government is asking our state governments to do an awful lot these days as it comes to K through 16 education. If the first pass through is something the federal government takes on, it might be easier to eventually get the states to sign up to do something.”

Rather than using resources to develop instruments such as the Scorecard, Greer suggests the federal government invest in incentives to states to reinvest in public higher education in critical fields that are important to America’s future. He also says the financial aid system is dated and seriously in need of reengineering. 

Talwalker says people wishing to comment on the College Scorecard should do so over the next month or so. A date has not yet been set for release, but it will probably be sometime this year.

“It’s important for parents and students to know that the Scorecard is one of a slate of resources available to them that provides useful information that will help in the decision-making process,” says Talwalker.

Keeping his state-focused approach in mind, Greer is now working on creating a Center for Higher Education Strategic Information and Governance that will address issues of access, affordability and outcome.

“The mission is to help bring about some meaningful policy change in higher education,” he says. “We’re using Stockton as a prototype to focus on 21st century issues of who will have the opportunity to go to college and how we help them afford it.”

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