Making the College Scorecard More Student Friendly

The Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Education have spent a great deal of time and effort in developing a simple one-page “college scorecard.” The goal of this scorecard is to provide information about the cost of attending college, average graduation rates, and information regarding student debt. The Department of Education has followed suit with a College Affordability and Transparency Center, which seeks to highlight colleges with unusually high or low costs to students.

Although I have no doubt that the Administration shares my goal of facilitating the availability of useful information to prospective students and their families, I doubt the current measures are having any effect. The college scorecard is difficult to understand, with technical language that is second nature to higher education professionals but is completely foreign to many prospective students. Because of this, I was happy to see a new report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, suggesting improvements to the measures. (As a side note, liberal and conservative think tanks work together quite a bit on issues of higher education. Transparency and information provision are nearly universal principles, and partisan concerns such as state-level teachers’ unions and charter schools just aren’t as present in higher ed.)

The authors of the report took the federal government’s scorecard and their own version to groups of high school students, where they tested the two versions and suggested improvements. The key points aren’t terribly surprising—focusing on a few important measures with simple language is critical—but it appears that the Department of Education has not yet done adequate testing of their measure. I am also not surprised that students prefer to see four-year graduation rates instead of six-year rates, as everyone thinks they will graduate on time—even though we know that is far from the case.

The changes to the college scorecard are generally a good idea, but I remain concerned about students’ ability to access the information. Even if the scorecard is required to be posted on a college website (like certain outcome measures currently are), it does not mean that it will be easy to access. For example, the graduation rate for first-time, full-time students who received a Pell Grant during their first year of college must be posted on the college’s website, but actually finding this information is difficult. I hope outside groups (such as CAP) will continue to publicize the information, as greater use of the data is the best way to influence colleges’ behavior.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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