White House Releases New College Scorecard – How Does it Stack Up?
Posted By Abby Perkins on September 16, 2015 at 12:03 pm
Back in July, it was reported that the Obama administration had scrapped a plan to release comprehensive college rankings in favor of providing students with raw data about institutions – a decision that pleased many colleges and universities, but didn’t sit well with some higher education experts, who thought that college students would be ill-served by a mass of complex data.
However, the White House released its updated college data platform, the College Scorecard, this Saturday, and so far, it seems to be exceeding expectations. Using the database, students can search institutions by degrees and programs, location, size or name. The “Advanced Search” option includes filters like for-profit versus non-profit, public versus private, religious affiliation, and specialized mission. Individual institution pages show average annual costs, graduation rates, and average annual salaries for graduates, compared with national averages for each metric. Students can also see whether a school is private or public, large or small, and urban, suburban or rural, as well as additional data on total costs, financial aid and debt, graduation and retention rates, graduate earnings, student body demographics, and more.
I searched my alma mater, Davidson College, on College Scorecard. Some of the screenshots are below:
That’s just for one individual school. To compare multiple institutions, just search a degree program (bachelor’s or associate’s), a major, a location and any other qualifications. I searched four-year programs for English Literature at small schools in North Carolina, and got 25 results:
Users can filter search results by earning potential, annual costs, graduation rates, average salaries, size, or name. The data used, according to The Next Web, covers 7,000 schools and goes back 18 years. It’s also available in an API for researchers, high school and college counselors and developers to use.
Response from the higher education community
Despite a rocky start, the site is getting solid reviews so far. The Next Web described its “easy-to-use interface,” calling the Scorecard a “handy tool for looking up unbiased information.” NPR said that, while the site is more of a “data dump” than a true comparison or rating service, it does offer “lots of useful, new information” – like how much students earn 10 years after entering a school. Slate describe the tool as “a huge step forward for transparency,” stating that it’s now much easier to tell which schools are a “waste of money.”
However, the response hasn’t been entirely positive. While most educators and administrators see the benefit of providing students with more data about college (and college outcomes), some worry that numbers like salaries and graduation rates won’t be able to paint students the full picture of a school – particularly for schools that cater to low-income, part-time and other non-traditional students.
According to Thomas Jaworski, founder of Quest College Consulting, “The College Scorecard is a great start for the college search. It helps to facilitate the college discussion, while providing a useful tool to compare colleges. What it lacks, though, is the human element. The campus visit, sitting in on a class and an overnight experience, cannot be replaced.”
Dr. Clarence Wyatt, president of Monmouth College, goes a step further. “[The College Scorecard] is certainly better than what had originally been proposed – the last thing families need is another set of rankings,” he says. “With something as complex as the choice of college, rankings are superficial at worst and harmful at best.”
As for the tool itself? Wyatt says, “The data that has been provided can be helpful to families as a very first screen – or, better yet, as one element in what should be a very multifaceted college search process. For what it provides, this is interesting information, but this should be one piece of a larger puzzle that a family puts together.”
The most important piece of that puzzle, Wyatt says, is the college visit (a process, he acknowledges, that is certainly more available to the financially well-off). “Be there, talk to the faculty, the staff, the current students. Decide – is this a place where I feel comfortable, where I”m going to feel both challenged and nurtured? Parents should ask themselves, too – is this a place that’s going to empower my son or daughter into the next phase of his or her life? You’re not going to get that until you get on campus.”
Anthony-James Green, founder and CEO of Green Test Prep, seconds Wyatt, stating, “It’s dangerous to tie numerical rankings to schools as any sort of be-all end-all.”
“More information is always a good thing,” Green says. “But the key is to gain information from a wide variety of reliable sources, to weigh multiple factors, and, most importantly, to tie that information to your specific goals, resources and aptitudes. The college application process has little to do with rankings, and much, much more to do with the very specific things that you want to get out of any particular college.”
Distracting from the real conversation
Some argue, however, that metrics like these tell us very little about the quality of an institution – and, moreover, that they distract from a discussion about more important issues in higher education.
Dr Alfred G. Mueller II, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Neumann University, argues that graduation rates and post-graduate employment rates don’t fall solely on the institution. “When I was in college in the 1980’s,” Mueller says, “everyone knew that, if a student changed his or her major in junior year, odds were better than average that the student would not graduate in four years. That was never taken as an indicator of the quality of an institution, but a natural consequence of changing one’s mind about one’s vocation. Similarly, if a student chooses not to look for employment beyond the confines of the region in which he or she lives, that student may not be employed in his or her major field for some time. A college or university has no control over a student’s choice on this matter.”
The bigger problem, though, according to Mueller? This focus on data and metrics “pulls attention away from factors that should matter in a student’s choice of college.”
“One of those factors,” Mueller argues, “should be how much a college provides access to students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and how successful the college is at taking under-prepared students and getting them up to speed. Small colleges and universities as well as branch campuses of larger institutions tend to be quite good with this – but on national scorecards, they do not fare as well.”
The reason? Under-prepared and economically disadvantaged students tend to take longer to graduate from college, if they do at all – for reasons generally outside of a college’s control. “The new Scorecard and other similar, metric-driven instruments,” says Mueller, “only participate in this greater drive away from discussions related to access to discussions of metrics that really measure nothing.”
The bottom line
The bottom line? The College Scorecard can be beneficial for families – as one small part of the larger college decision-making process. Rely on it – or any set of data or rankings – too much, though, and you may end up overlooking more important factors, like how you’ll fit in at and what you’ll get out of an institution. “Is the College Scorecard a helpful tool?” asks Green. “Absolutely. But if you’re using it as your only criteria for selecting a college, you’re making a massive mistake.”
What’s more? We shouldn’t let new data or high-tech tools distract us from real issues in higher education – issues like educational access for a diverse range of students. And we shouldn’t forget that, no matter how robust a data source or set of rankings is, it’s always going to penalize some institutions – even some that do a great service for many students, and could be a great fit for many more.
All images via https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/