From the Daily: A good way to keep score

Sunday, September 20, 2015 - 1:42pm

The Department of Education has finally released its new College Scorecard website, three years after it was first proposed by President Barack Obama, just in time for the current college application season. While organizations like U.S. News & World Report dominate the field of college rankings, the White House intends to have its newest program shine light onto factors such as student loan debt, financial aid packages and graduate salary, which typically are ignored in traditional rankings methodology. Obama envisions the scorecard as a tool that will “help all of us see which schools do the best job of preparing America for success.” It is a breath of fresh air in the tedious process of choosing a college, especially when schools are more likely to advertise their reputation and endowments and less likely to mention important statistics like graduation rate and average post-graduation salary.

College rankings are often pulled into controversies as their systems are accused of preconceived biases and skewed weighting systems. With the data coming straight from the federal government, students can rest assured, knowing that college evaluations are derived from an objective source. Additionally, through compiling thousands of schools into one source, the College Scorecard has the potential to save students time and energy that could have been wasted scrolling through endless “college information” websites. The College Scorecard website streamlines the college searching process by displaying information about a particular school alongside national averages, stepping away from arbitrary rankings. No first place, no 46th place — just a practical, straightforward report. Users are able to immediately view three pertinent statistics: average annual cost, graduation rate and salary after attending. The site’s clear navigation also allows users to easily access other statistics and information important to their specific needs.

Alumni salaries, debt and loans finally take center stage over average standardized test scores or high-school GPA. That kind of information is included in a given school’s profile, but it’s not emphasized heavily; these statistics are at the bottom of a school’s profile page and are fairly simplistic. Some critics of the new program may attack this relative lack of data concerning the “academic strength” of students attending a certain school, but by focusing more on the financial aspect of going to college as well as graduation and retention rates, the federal government has reiterated its position in the conversation of higher education: Schools need to be affordable and effective. Hopefully, the scorecards will work as a positive step in finding a solution to the ever-growing issues of college affordability and the student debt crisis. For low-income or first-generation students, this information can be necessary in cases where attending college is not just another step in life, but a step out of a life.

The College Scorecard is not without its caveats (which is understandable, given the website launched barely a week ago). For example, currently, the University’s own scorecard on the website lists the annual average cost as $16,287, a number that would be scoffed at by out-of-state students, who make up more than half the combined undergraduate and graduate student body, and, on average, pay more than $43,000 per academic year, not including housing costs. This information is not meant to be misleading; hovering over the question-mark icon above the listed average cost provides a small explanation that says that the number generated only reflects “average cost for in-state students” at the University. But instead of trying to compensate for only listing in-state tuition with this explanation, the College Scorecard should aim to include statistics for both in- and out-of-state students.

Additionally, the report lacks any information regarding the cost of room and board at the University, which can come close to matching the price of tuition for in-state students. In defense of the White House, room and board fluctuates more dynamically than annual tuition rates and varies based on housing situation. Because housing costs can vary widely depending on an individual student’s living situation on campus, the website’s creators may have chosen to simply omit respective information. If this is the case, the website should include a brief explanation acknowledging this fact.

Ultimately, while the College Scorecard should not be the only tool used to evaluate colleges, students should embrace the program as a new mode of evaluating schools and push colleges to be more transparent about affordability and life after graduation. With growing competition in the job market, colleges need to ensure that their students are not only prepared academically, but can also thrive financially after graduation.