Beefing Up the College Scorecard

Trump administration releases new program-level data on student loans in update to College Scorecard, a first step toward producing outcomes for all college programs.

May 22, 2019
 

The Education Department on Monday announced progress on delivering more comprehensive data for the College Scorecard, a consumer tool originally launched by the Obama administration.

The department added new information for 2,100 non-degree-granting institutions to the consumer-facing website. And, more significantly for the Trump administration’s priorities, it released new preliminary data on student debt for individual programs of study.

That’s a first step toward giving students access to a fuller picture on outcomes for individual higher ed programs, instead of just colleges over all. Potential students could see, for example, how liberal arts majors fare versus engineering students at nearby institutions, instead of just getting results for the college over all.

After its future initially looked uncertain with a Republican in the White House, the College Scorecard has become a central piece of the higher ed agenda for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She’s pulled back on Obama-era accountability rules like gainful employment but argued that college students would be better served by having more data on individual programs.

“We committed to students that we would continually improve the College Scorecard so that they could access relevant, accurate and actionable data as they make decisions about their education after high school,” said DeVos in a statement. “The updates released today are another step in fulfilling that promise. We look forward to seeing how students, parents, institutions and researchers utilize this important information.”

On top of adding new certificate-granting programs, the update to the Scorecard consumer tool also includes graduation information for students previously excluded from data. Earlier iterations of the tool accounted only for first-time, full-time college students. Critics of the project had complained those limitations provided an incomplete picture of institutions. At many colleges that don't serve traditional-age, residential freshmen, most students aren't first time or full-time.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said for higher ed researchers the most significant new development was the release of program-level data on student debt. The data could provide a fuller picture of which borrowers take out the highest volume of student loans -- Kelchen said graduate programs in health sciences made up most of the high-debt programs in the new data.

Kelchen said the eventual release of earnings data would also allow researchers to calculate the ratio of debt to earnings for typical program graduates, the key metric for gainful-employment ratings.

“This is a traditional conservative administration,” he said. “The goal is to get consumer information out there, and this is a step in that direction.”

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, a consortium of college accreditors, praised the update to the Scorecard tool in a statement.

“Providing expanded, accessible information about college and other postsecondary performance is critical to our work to assure institutional quality and continuous improvement,” the group said.

Some college groups had criticized the Scorecard after its launch for providing an incomplete or even misleading picture of outcomes involving graduation and student loans. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities said it was pleased with the updates to the website. But Craig Lindwarm, APLU's vice president for congressional and governmental affairs, said that important gaps remain because of a federal ban on the collection of student-level data. For example, he said, although updated graduation data incudes part-time students and students who transfer into institutions, it doesn't reflect outcomes for students who transfer out of institutions.

APLU argues passing the College Transparency Act would address those shortcomings.

Adding information about program-level outcomes was a long-term goal for officials who created the College Scorecard. Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at the think tank Third Way who directed the Scorecard under the Obama administration, said the department should be applauded for releasing more data.

“However, information by itself will never be a substitute for strong accountability,” he said. “Students shouldn’t be able to take out loans at programs that show no return on investment.”

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