COLUMBIA — A college scorecard system launched last month by the White House is useful in providing some information, but it doesn't shed sufficient light on the true cost of a degree, MU and other higher education leaders say.
"The scorecard seems to be a reasonable approach for people to use to begin to compare information such as graduation rate and costs," said Ann Korschgen, MU vice provost for enrollment management. "But it is so limited in the amount of data that it provides that no one should make a decision based only on this scorecard."
Following President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Feb. 12, the White House website launched the college scorecard to help prospective college students find out, in the words of the president, "where they can get the most bang for their buck."
The scorecard features five statistics — cost, graduation rates, loan default rates, median borrowing and employment — that aim to help college shoppers understand the financial realities of the schools they may attend.
However, these statistics are unclear and lack the context to help people understand them, said Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, of which MU is a member.
"We absolutely agree with the importance of transparency, but it’s critical that any information conveyed to the public concerning affordability and value be complete, accurate and meaningful," Toiv said. "In these respects, the college scorecard needs substantial revisions to accomplish its laudable goals."
How it works
Users can access the scorecard through the White House website's higher education page. Once users reach the scorecard, they can search by college name or use filters such as location, campus setting and majors offered.
Searching for a specific college sends the user directly to that college's scorecard. If the college shopper decides to search using the filters, a list of colleges that match the selected criteria are displayed. From there, users can select individual schools to pull up their respective scorecards.
Loans and borrowing
The median borrowing section of the scorecard reflects federal government loans, such as Federal Perkins loans to students or PLUS loans for parents of students, but not private loans used to cover the cost of attending a college. Private loans, unlike federal loans, have variable interest rates and often require a co-signer.
Additionally, there is no information on the scorecard about how many students at a particular school need to borrow.
"The median borrowing statistic is misleading for students because the totals do not provide the necessary context," Toiv said. "For some schools, the fact that a large percentage may not borrow at all is not reflected."
The card also does not differentiate between loans to students and loans to parents. According to a 2012 report by Sallie Mae, 13 percent of families borrowed money in 2011 to help fund their child’s college education.
The average net cost number also has its own issues. The information is dated from the 2010-11 academic year. In 2012 alone, the average cost of college tuition increased by 4.8 percent, according to the College Board.
Additionally, for many private schools that rely more heavily on tuition, such as Stephens College, listing such a price can be misleading.
"The numbers appear accurate but probably do not reflect a true picture of what our students are paying at Stephens," Stephens spokeswoman Janese Silvey said. "The net price listed is an average that would be skewed by those families who can afford full tuition. Many of our students pay much less because of the scholarships and grants they receive."
The six-year graduation rate highlighted on the card includes only first-time college enrollees, excluding transfer students and those who have previously attended but not completed college. At MU, this discounts about 18 percent of the student body, or almost 5,000 people.
Nationally, almost a third of students who eventually earn a degree transfer at least once, according to a 2012 report by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Some of the metrics on the card, including graduation rate and median borrowing, compare a school to a national average of other college and universities that mostly grant the same level of degrees, rather than comparing institutions of similar size, type or educational model.
MU, Stephens and Columbia College are all considered "primarily bachelor’s degree granting," as are almost 2,000 other schools. Among the 2,000 are institutions as disparate as the private, 50-student Alaska Bible College and the public, 50,000-student University of Minnesota, along with for-profit institutions such as DeVry University and University of Phoenix.
Getting a job and earning a higher wage is clearly a priority for prospective college students and their families. Sixty-seven percent of Americans say getting a good job is a "very important reason" for getting education beyond high school, according to a February 2013 report from the Lumina Foundation.
A 2012 report, from student loan company Sallie Mae, found that 73 percent of undergraduate students strongly agreed that earning more money was a reason for attending college.
The White House scorecard has a section for employment data that as of 3 p.m. Sunday had no data. This data would allow prospective students to weigh their borrowing costs against the added income a college education might help them to find the most cost-effective school.
According to the scorecard page, the U.S. Department of Education is working to gather such data; until then, students should obtain the information directly from the institutions.
However, some educators, such as Catherine Hill, president of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., believe this focus on immediate earnings is a distortion of a college education’s value. For example, students who go to graduate or professional schools may not have high immediate earnings, but their earning potential is much higher down the line.
Toiv agrees. "The stated goal of providing average earnings for graduates immediately after graduation is misleading to students and parents as it is a short-term, utilitarian measure that is wholly inappropriate to evaluate the value of education."
Lost in the noise?
The data on the college scorecard, despite its shortcomings, could be helpful to prospective college students, if they opt to use it.
The federal government alone has four other services intended to serve the same purpose: the College Navigator, the College Affordability and Transparency Center, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s college cost comparison tool and the forthcoming Financial Aid Shopping Sheet.
"It is a bit of duplicative effort," said Nicholas Prewett, director of financial aid at MU. "But any tools that students can use to make that decision are useful."
The government’s shopping aids also have to compete with tools from other organizations, such as the College Board’s Big Future page, which allows students to sort schools based not just on costs, majors and financial aid, but also on campus activities and where they can get the most Advanced Placement credits, among other things.
Many colleges also provide their own tools and information for potential students. By law, all colleges are required to have their own net price calculators, which provide a personalized estimate rather than a sweeping average.
The U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center has released the College Scorecard to provide better information to students and parents about college affordability and value. The College Scorecard contains information about a college’s costs, graduation rates, loan default rates, median borrowing and employment. This chart compares the College Scorecard results of Columbia College, MU and Stephens College.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.