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VOL. 39 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 23, 2015

College Scoreboard offers a good start for making big decision

By Kathy Carlson

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Darius Lewis, a sophomore international business and accounting major, receives some help from Rakida Sims, assistant director of financial aid at Fisk University.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

One month after the federal government released its College Scorecard database on the costs and benefits of college, parents, students and the colleges themselves are trying to wrap their heads around it.

The general consensus: It’s one tool to use in selecting a college – probably a good tool – but not the only one.

The Obama administration unveiled the College Scorecard on Sept. 12, just as students settled in on campus and high school students started the fall round of college fairs, visits and applications.

Two weeks later, on a Saturday morning at a Nashville community college, none of a handful of parents and students filling out applications had heard of the College Scorecard. But students looked interested and parents jotted down the website, collegescorecard.ed.gov.

So what is the College Scorecard?

It gathers in one place information from more than 7,000 schools – colleges, universities, community colleges and for-profit institutions. It takes information that the U.S. Department of Education had already gathered from individual colleges and students receiving federal loans and organizes it in one place.

There, students and families can see graduation rates, average college costs broken down by family income brackets, typical student debt loads, average monthly payments and percentage of former students paying back their loans. The data is broken down by school and includes national averages to allow comparison.

The scorecard also reveals how much money students make after leaving school.

The government looked to the income tax records of students who received federal school loans, so it could see their earnings 10 years after they started school.

It aggregated all the income information to come up with a median income for each school, which it then compared to a national average. It also discloses the percentage of former students who earn more than a high school graduate six years after starting school.

“The intention behind that is to give students the opportunity to compare and contrast in making their college choice,” says Tom Middendorf, associate vice president for academic services at Trevecca Nazarene University.

Therein lie the strengths and weaknesses of the scorecard, many college administrators say.

“One of the things we worry about with ratings is that they give the illusion that all schools are alike and all you have to do is compare numbers,” says Tom Bogart, president of Maryville College. But that’s just not the case.

“The College Scorecard is very new,” he says. “… A lot of the individual information has come from people who have taken out federal loans. The strength with that is that you don’t have to go out and get the data; the weakness is that it misses the roughly 30 percent of students who don’t take out the loans.”

He and others point out that the scorecard’s main focus seems to be on salary.

“That’s unsurprising,” Bogart says, “and I’m pleased to see that Maryville College shows up above the national averages. I would hasten to say that salary is not the only measure of success. We have a proud history of teaching a lot of school teachers and we plan on continuing that.”

Similarly, at Trevecca, “some students that attend our institution are going to be involved in ministry, mission work and nonprofits,” Middendorf says. “That’s a very important piece of our society but those individuals may not make the most money. Not all of our students fit that category but our school (educates those who do).

“Some students are choosing to go into occupations where you don’t make much money. They enjoy their work, they serve (others) and do a lot of good for our communities.”

Many college students pursue graduate degrees after college, as 61 percent of Fisk University students do within a year of graduation, says Rodney Hanley, its provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Going to graduate or professional school will skew earnings lower because 10 years after beginning as a college student, someone who went to graduate school may still be pursuing a degree or be employed in a relatively low-paying medical residency.

Will Doyle, Vanderbilt University associate professor of higher education, finds it reasonable to use income as a starting point in differentiating among colleges.

But, he cautions, “At every institution there’s a huge amount of variation in graduates’ incomes. The biggest difference in incomes is still between fields and not between institutions.”

Moreover, he says, “The College Scorecard focuses on relatively short-term earnings. Scholars have tracked incomes of graduates with liberal arts degrees over longer periods of time, 20 and 30 years after graduation, and disparities tend to lessen over time.”

Just as income data needs to be placed in context, so does data on the expense of college, some administrators say.

The national-average cost information includes data from community college students to Ivy Leaguers, and Hanley wonders if it’s fair to lump all those data points together to come up with the averages.

It remains to be seen how much the scorecard will influence college choice.

“Probably the No. 1 criterion for prospective college students is the financial aid package,” Fisk’s Hanley says. “It’s not the only criterion but it’s one of the most important, if not the most important.”

Doyle says that most people tend to attend a college that’s within 20 miles of home, and usually a public institution. Nearly three out of four college students stay within 50 miles of home.

Because geographic considerations are so important, he says, it’s less likely that college decisions represent a true consumer choice, and therefore, less likely that consumer choice will change the way colleges offer services.

For people who are able to make a choice about colleges, Doyle says the College Scorecard is a better tool than reputation-based rankings because it’s based on actual outcomes – what happens to people after they leave college.

The main point is this: Rankings are only one tool.

“We are always encouraging families to get as much information as possible about college,” says Maryville’s Bogart. “It’s an important investment decision involving a lot of time and a lot of money. You want to choose wisely. (The College Scorecard) is a tool that can identify some issues to keep an eye on and allow people to quickly compare colleges on a given dimension.”

Fisk Provost Hanley adds: “I am an advocate of rankings; it’s a complex marketplace for students and their parents. It’s hard to make heads or tails of one (school) versus another. Rankings and scorecards are one way that will help students and their parents – it’s not the only way.

“We always encourage students and parents to visit the campus. Fisk University has a unique culture and our alumni are very loyal.”

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