Return of the College Scorecard

The Department of Education rolls out updated information on its college transparency tool, including a new comparison feature.

September 29, 2017
 

An Obama administration initiative that provided consumer information on colleges and universities has survived for another year and into the Trump administration.

The Department of Education published updated information on the College Scorecard Thursday, including a new feature that allows students to compare data from up to 10 institutions at once. The update is a significant win for proponents of transparency in higher education who have watched Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over recent months delay and water down requirements for the gainful-employment measure.

The consumer tool allows students and their families to easily find the average annual cost of a given institution, its graduation rate, the typical salary after attending and the percentage of students paying off their debt within three years of leaving.

The Scorecard wasn't required by law and, having launched in 2015, isn't so entrenched that it would have been difficult for the department to abandon. Although the Scorecard's metrics weren't attached to any accountability measures that could have repercussions for institutions (read: potential loss of student aid funds), maintaining and updating the tool takes a significant amount of work on the part of staff. Inside Higher Ed reported that the department was making progress on updating the website's data in June, and it rolled out the new numbers Thursday with little fanfare.

"The Department of Education should be commended for doing so," said Michael Itzkowitz, a senior policy adviser for higher education at Third Way and the former director of the Scorecard at the department. "This is a huge and difficult project that takes as significant amount of man-hours to produce."

Itzkowitz said 2.5 million users have already accessed the website. Even more have used College Scorecard data through separate college-search tools built by developers using the Scorecard's application programming interface, or data feed.

The Scorecard came about after the Obama administration shelved a much more controversial proposal to rank colleges and universities. Higher ed groups have largely gotten on board with the tool, although they still have complaints about which data are included, which students are counted and how quickly incorrect information is fixed.

Paul Hassen, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said the group is still concerned with the focus on the three main data points in the tool -- annual cost, graduation rate, salary after attending -- and believes they are somewhat flawed in presentation. But he said the group thinks over all that the updated tool is a big improvement, pointing specifically to the comparison feature.

"It seems to be a very useful tool for students and families looking to make what is a very important decision," he said.

In addition to the comparison feature, the update Thursday also makes it easier for users to share results.

The Federal Student Aid website already includes a link to the College Scorecard on the home page of its Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Itzkowitz said further improvements could allow those two tools to work together -- for example, by populating the online FAFSA application with results from Scorecard searches.

Jamey Rorison, director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said there are still plenty of other ways to improve the Scorecard's consumer tool and data. The department should add completion data by race to its website to cast new light on inequities in the higher education system, Rorison said, as well as add data on program-level outcomes. He said the College Transparency Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in May to create a student-level data system, would accomplish many of those objectives to make students and policy makers better informed.

A spokesman for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities agreed that the passage of legislation for a comprehensive data system was necessary, even as he said APLU was pleased that the department had continued to update the Scorecard data.

"We continue to be very concerned that a lot of key data on the Scorecard is incomplete and misleading (such as graduation rates and earnings) largely because the department has its hands tied due to a congressional ban on student-level data," said Jeff Lieberson, a spokesman for APLU. "This underscores the need for Congress to pass the College Transparency Act, which would enable the department and its Scorecard to post much more complete and accurate data."

The Obama administration made it a stated ambition to release program-level data through the Scorecard website, so students and families could see variation in results within institutions based on a student's choice of major. But it will likely take several more years of data collection before the department has the ability to release results with that level of detail.

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, said the release of new Scorecard data was a promising sign the department is at least willing to consider the value of transparency.

"They have a long way to go to prove they are true believers, and that they really think putting out more data and better data can help students make better choices about where they go to college," she said.

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