The Obama administration is currently trying to tackle the issue of higher education affordability by adding a new tool to the College Affordability and Transparency Center — a College Scorecard.
“How can we make sure that everybody is getting the kind of education they need to personally succeed but also to build up this nation? Because in this economy, there is no greater predictor of individual success than a good education,” U.S. President Barack Obama said during his speech at the University of Michigan Jan. 27.
The administration is trying to help prospective college students — especially at-risk students — and their families compare colleges before they choose to apply or attend.
“The purpose of the scorecard is to make it easier for students and their families to identify and choose high-quality, affordable colleges that provide good value,” the White House’s College Scorecard website said.
However, more factors than just tuition costs, graduation rates, loan repayments and salaries upon graduation are often considered in order to determine the right college for a particular student, and some people feel the proposed comparison tools are not effective in facilitating accurate decision-making.
“Proposals like this are largely for political effect,” economics professor and department chair David Feldman said. “Schools that accept a lot of at-risk students and try to work with them are going to have lower graduation and retention rates with worse salaries for graduates than a school whose incoming freshman class is composed exclusively of children from well-off families who have taken rigorous high school curriculums.”
That is not to say that colleges accepting at-risk students offer worse educations, but simply that all of the factors that go into the creation of a successful program for students will differ widely.
“How do you compare our data versus the data from a school with a different discipline? The answer is that people need to be informed consumers,” government professor Larry Evans said. “The context of the information is important.”
Other compilations of college data, such as in the U.S. News & World Report, do factor in other parts of the higher education system such as the amount of money given by the alumni, research productivity and student selectivity. These aspects may directly correlate with the amount of money the college is able to invest in each student who attends.
“I think a scorecard like this will help students and families to see the long-term implications of college choice,” assistant professor of education Jim Barber said. “For this scorecard to be really useful to students and families, the data will need to be broken down by major, degree and school. It’s important to know what you’re comparing; aggregated data simply won’t be useful for individuals.”
The types of things that will be represented in the scorecard, like salaries, vary widely as aggregated data because they depend upon the kinds of programs that the school has and each individual student’s choice of major.
Similarly, salaries after graduation depend upon the careers chosen by students. The College of William and Mary, for example, has many students who choose to participate in community service program like the Peace Corps after graduation. This factor alone would have the power to skew the average salary at the College.
“To have good information to provide, you have to overcome the things reasonable to make comparisons and factor in a lot of things — meaningful analysis is very complicated,” economics professor Robert Archibald said. “That kind of detail gets in the way of the idea of a scorecard, which is a small set of measures people can easily comprehend.”
Though the idea is still a work in progress, there are many benefits to being able to see the information the scorecard would show. Colleges would collect this kind of data throughout their campus and compile a list of statistics and aggregated data that will be useful to prospective students.
“I think what would be important to know would be the amount of internships students receive at the school, how much research undergrads are able to do, and that professors do research as well,” Melissa Goitia ’15 said.
A program where students can easily pull up information about schools would likely be used, even if only to see tuition rates or to know how much average debt they will have once they graduate.
“I think that for me, when I was looking at colleges, I was looking for more of a reputation than necessarily the costs of student loans,” Lauren Piulson ’15 said.
The economy is currently not particularly beneficial for graduates looking for jobs, which means colleges are considered the vehicles by which students receive help. The idea that colleges can provide their prospective students with useful information and help them find a job is reassuring to many.
“People do need to exercise some judgment in how to interpret these numbers, because all schools are different,” Evans said. “However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t gather the data and make it available.”