New College Scorecard Takes the Guesswork Out of Picking a School

See college graduation rates, average annual costs and more

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Many have written about the new College Scorecard, the mass of data on U.S. colleges compiled by the Department of Education and the Department of the Treasury, released by the White House last week.

Although some have described how President Obama had to ‘walk back’ his original plan of ranking the schools in the style of Consumer Reports, others are exploring the College Scorecard itself and determining just how helpful it can be to consumers who want to make informed decisions about college.

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It is an enormous dataset. You can look up, for example, the graduation rates of all the schools in the CUNY system. I’d always heard that Baruch was the best CUNY school—now I can see clearly that it also has the highest CUNY graduation rate, of 65%. Graduation rates are considered a significant indicator of a school’s ability to succeed at its mission. Other crucial information, like the average annual cost, financial aid and debt, and salary after attending, may not be readily available on college websites.

The College Scorecard database is made of data from students who received some type of Federal financial aid—that is, most students. It does not, however, include schools that do not participate in federal student aid programs such as Stafford Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, or Federal Pell grants, causing some of those schools; many of which are conservative, to cry foul.

An absolute must-read is the post at Vox.com, which describes just how powerful the data in the Scorecard is. It discusses how the data reveal that some colleges leave students “worse off than the typical high school graduate.” Using $25,000 as the average salary of a high school graduate, the Scorecard discloses what percentage of graduates from a given university earn more than that, and includes their average salary.

Salary isn’t always a great metric for determining whether or not a school is worth attending. But if 10 years out, more than 25% of a school’s graduates are still earning less than the average high school graduate, you may want to reconsider. Many of those schools are for-profit—almost always a wretched choice. The Vox piece states that for most public and private nonprofit four-year schools, only about 15% of students are earning less than $25,000.

The post also points out that the information should be enormously helpful to low-income students who want to choose schools that are successful at graduating students like them. The data “makes it possible to compare colleges serving … low-income students of color, and highlight those that do it best.” Two schools it identifies as successfully serving low-income students without charging them a high price, are the University of California Irvine and the State University of New York at Albany.

In fact, NPR wrote a post that showed that nearly the entire California university system is effective at successfully graduating low-income and first-generation students. Interestingly, the NPR piece demonstrated that ranking the schools is virtually impossible, so the Obama administration was no doubt right to abandon the idea of ranking the schools. NPR asked three higher education experts to rank the schools, and all three used different criteria—which yielded three separate lists of schools. To see the top 15 colleges that emphasize upward mobility (according to that expert), go here.

Asking how many students default on student loans and what their debt load is like, along with a school’s graduation rate, is a good idea before deciding on a school. An analysis by Inside Higher Ed determined that for-profit schools are among the worst offenders, along with some community colleges and historically black colleges and universities. “Among four-year, private nonprofit colleges where a majority of students borrow, HBCUs account for seven of the top 10 institutions with the lowest repayment rates.” The reason for the low repayment rates were not included.

My advice? Use the College Scorecard in conjunction with other resources as a way to amass information about colleges you’re already considering and to learn about schools not on your radar. College is a financial decision that has long repercussions, so be sure to evaluate the financial data before choosing a school.