Some Thoughts on Program-Level College Scorecard Data

The U.S. Department of Education has been promising to make program-level outcome data available on the College Scorecard for several years now. The Obama administration started the underlying data collection after releasing the initial Scorecard to the public in 2015, and the Trump administration elevated this topic by issuing an executive order earlier this year. I was at a technical review panel at ED last month on this topic, and I just noticed earlier today that members of the public can now comment on our two-day discussion in one of Washington’s most scenic windowless conference rooms.

So I was surprised to see a press release this afternoon announcing that the College Scorecard had been updated in several important ways. This update includes more than just program-level data. The public-facing site now has data on certificate-granting institutions, as well as using IPEDS data on graduation rates that go beyond first-time, full-time students. Needless to say, I’m happy to see both of these improvements, even though I am somewhat skeptical that students pursuing vocational certificates will access the public-facing Scorecard to the same extent that students seeking bachelor’s degrees will.

But this blog post focuses on program-level Scorecard data, which are preliminary and will be updated as soon as later this year. I used the combined 2015-16 and 2016-17 dataset (the most recent year available), which includes data on all graduates who received federal financial aid. This means that coverage is better for certain programs than others; for example, law schools are better covered than PhD programs since relatively few PhD students borrow compared to law students. The dataset contains 194,575 programs across 6,094 institutions.

Here are some highlights:

  • Median debt data are only available for 42,430 programs (21.8% of the sample), as small programs do not have data shown due to privacy concerns. But based on IPEDS completions, about 70% of students are enrolled in programs where debt data are available.
  • Here are the average median debt burdens by credential level:
    • Undergraduate certificate: $10,953 (n=4,146)
    • Associate: $15,134 (n=5,952)
    • Bachelor’s: $23,382 (n=23,649)
    • Graduate certificate: $48,513 (n=266)
    • Master’s: $42,335 (n=7,011)
    • First professional: $141,310 (n=660)
    • Doctoral: $95,715 (n=716)
  • 172 programs had over $200,000 in median debt, and it looks like the top 116 programs are all in health sciences. The data are preliminary, but Roseman University of Health Sciences’s dentistry program has the top listed debt burden at a cool $410,213. Meanwhile, 3,970 programs had median debt burdens below $10,000.

I am thrilled to see program-level debt data, both as a researcher (if I only had more time to sit down and dive into the data!) and as the newly-minted director of higher education graduate programs. Thanks to this dataset, I now know that roughly half of the students in the educational leadership doctoral program (K-12 and higher ed) at Seton Hall borrow, and median debt among graduates is $63,045. I hope that colleges around the country use this tool to get a handle on their graduates’ situations now that data are available for more than just those programs that were covered by gainful employment.

Oh, and about gainful employment. Once earnings data come out (which hopefully will be soon), it will be possible to calculate a debt-to-earnings ratio for programs that cover a large number of students even without the sanctions present in the now-mothballed gainful employment regulations. Also expect to see loan repayment rates in the updated Scorecard, which will shed some interesting light on income-driven repayment rate usage and the implications for students and taxpayers.