With New 'Scorecard,' Obama Seeks to Give Students a Tool for Comparing Colleges

February 13, 2013

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama said his administration's release on Wednesday of a "College Scorecard" would enable students and families to find institutions that would give them "the most bang for your educational buck."

The president first proposed the scorecard last year, in a speech at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and a preliminary version was released in June. The online interactive tool is designed to help students and their families gather information about individual colleges and compare them to similar institutions by providing data on costs, potential earnings, and average student-loan debt.

"We know students and families are often overwhelmed in the college-search process—but feel they lack the tools to sort through the information and decide which school is right for them," the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said in a written statement.

Plans call for the scorecard to provide information about what kinds of jobs students at different institutions get when they graduate, and the average earnings of former students who took out federal student loans. The current version, which is similar to the preliminary version released last year, offers neither types of data. The U.S. Department of Education plans to publish information on potential earnings in the coming year, according to the statement.

But the lack of data is among several features of the scorecard that disappoint Mark S. Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and president of College Measures, an AIR offshoot that has developed its own online college-data tool. To be useful, he said, such a tool needs to provide more context for the data and a way for students and families to conduct side-by-side comparisons of institutions, rather than displaying only one institution at a time.

"If the audience for this is a 17-year-old kid and his family, this does not tell me enough," said Mr. Schneider, who is consulting with The Chronicle on a data project. "It is very difficult to understand and to use."

The newest and most important information on the scorecard, Mr. Schneider said, is the data on median student-loan borrowing amounts, and the average repayment of those loans. But the scorecard does not place those numbers in the context of data on potential earnings. To a high-school student, the repayment amount is an abstract number, Mr. Schneider said.

However, Julie M. Morgan, director of postsecondary access and success at the Center for American Progress, said the scorecard was a step up from the previous version because it has a "more readable" design and it links to a customizable net-price calculator for students.

"Students don't necessarily care what the average cost is," Ms. Morgan said. "They just want to know what they're going to pay individually."

The lack of employment and earnings data gives the department an opportunity to ask current and future students what information they want, Ms. Morgan said. Rather than looking at an existing catalog of data, the government should ask what information would be useful to students.

If it knows what students want, Ms. Morgan said, "the department has an opportunity to do it right."