Consumer Information on Colleges Is Imperfect but Improving, Federal Officials Say

March 14, 2013

To help prospective college students make informed decisions, the U.S. Department of Education has created several online tools, but consumers may not know how to find and use them. Federal officials acknowledged as much at a policy briefing on Thursday and asked the public to help "spread the word" about tools such as College Navigator, the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, and the College Scorecard.

When prospective students search online for information about college and student loans, panelists from the Education Department said, links to government Web sites are often buried under links to commercial loan sites. The department plans to step up its promotion of the tools to try to change that imbalance, by developing public-service announcements, for instance, and conducting training sessions to familiarize college counselors at high schools around the country with the tools.

Use of the tools, widely believed to be low, has been on the rise, said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the department's National Center for Education Statistics. The College Navigator site, which lets students search and compare colleges, had about 2.5 million visits in the past year, he said.

Another official said the number of people interacting with the department's Office of Federal Student Aid through social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter as "huge and growing."

Panel members also discussed common complaints about the department's online tools, including about how they display colleges' graduation rates.

Concerns about the way the department calculates those rates—counting only first-time, full-time students who graduate within a certain time frame from the institutions where they first enrolled—have mounted in recent years. David A. Bergeron, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said the department understands the frustration with that methodology. However, he said, "that's the one Congress prescribed."

At the same time, Mr. Bergeron said, the department is working to improve data collection to include part-time and transfer students.

Mr. Bergeron also discussed using figures like sticker price and net price. Institutions worry the former can be intimidating for prospective students, he said, and say it's not representative of what most students actually pay. The department tools offer information about both figures.

Salary and employment statistics for colleges' graduates, which are to be included in future iterations of the Scorecard, also came up on Thursday. Adding that type of information is a highly anticipated component of the online interactive tool, which drew a number of questions and criticisms from industry experts after its recent release.

Mr. Bergeron said that the department planned to survey graduates beginning three to four years after college, looking at the same cohort reflected in the Scorecard's figures on loan-default rates. "We think it would be misleading to use immediate work-force entry" income figures, he said. Such early data could underestimate young graduates' eventual earning potential, he said.

Department officials also reported having updated designs for various tools, to reflect current Web trends and improve usability. But, Mr. Buckley joked, College Navigator still looks like a site designed by a statistician saying, "I'm going to cram as much information as I can here so that no one can accuse me of leaving something out."

Correction (3/15/2013, 10:09 a.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly characterized David Bergeron's remarks on sticker price and net price. Rather than saying that the department's tools emphasized sticker price, he said they offered information about both figures. The text has been corrected.