Salary Isn't the Only Measure

The Obama administration wants students and families to judge colleges only by cost during and pay after, writes Christopher Nelson. Why ignore so many other factors, such as … quality of education?

September 14, 2015
Class at St. John's College

Here’s the good news about the new College Scorecard: no rankings. In dropping its proposed plan, the Obama administration showed recognition of the difficulty -- indeed, the impossibility -- of providing students and their families with measurements that could determine which colleges offer “best value” and “worst value.”

The administration had hoped to come up with an easy-to-understand website for measuring value that would help students and families understand the return on investment they could expect for the cost of a college education. That effort proved entirely unworkable to most people who studied the proposal closely. So we all owe the U.S. Department of Education thanks for scrapping that proposal.

This weekend, the Department of Education launched a new College Scoreboard website. After a preliminary review of the site and the roughly 80-page (with appendix) accompanying technical paper, “Using Federal Data to Measure and Improve the Performance of U.S. Institutions of Higher Education,” count me among the dissatisfied.

To begin with, measuring the value of an education in monetary terms fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of higher education. The highest learning is no more a commodity than one's life is a commodity. Students need an education that will help them earn a living, but they also wish for a fulfilling life, one that goes beyond any economic measure.

Students are looking for many different things from their time in college, and there is enormous diversity among colleges in what they offer a student. What is valuable to one student may be of little value to another. Needs and results will vary from student to student even within an institution, let alone across different institutions.

The Obama administration’s aim is to provide transparency about factors to consider in choosing a college. This is a laudable goal. Yet the new College Scorecard continues to place a premium on economic rather than noneconomic valuations. That is regrettable.

My initial impression is that the website is largely about price, cost, financial aid, success in securing a job, ability to pay off debt, courses of study offered and the size of the student body. There is also one indicator about whether the school is located in an urban, suburban or rural area.

But what about the rigor and breadth of instruction? Don’t students and parents want to know whether a student can expect to graduate with a firm grasp on how to think about the world, and how to communicate their thought in speech and writing -- all skills that will help them much more in life than any specialized career training? And what about meaningful faculty-student interaction? Surely students would like to know whether they will be likely to end up in small discussion classes or large, anonymous lecture classes. And what about the richness of student life, religious affiliation, cultural resources in the surrounding community, demographic diversity and other factors that may indicate the quality of life that a student can expect during his or her studies? It does not seem that the College Scorecard provides any guidance about such matters, which can be crucial in deciding which college to attend.

There are also serious questions about the sources and relevance of the data, which seems to be several years out of date. Will families reviewing Scorecard information realize that many colleges and universities -- including my own -- have added large amounts of funding for financial aid during the past few years? Or will they simply reject some institutions based on inaccurate data? The U-CAN website (University and College Accountability Network) designed by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, after extensive testing with families about the kinds of information that would be useful, has much more current and comprehensive data on this topic.

The new College Scorecard website also tries to provide information about the average salaries that graduates of each college earn six years after enrolling. It is difficult to know where this information comes from. Does it take into account how many students continue on to graduate school? If not, the averages will seem to be lower than they really should be.

The Scorecard apparently tries to compensate for graduate students in its salary data by not counting former students who are in deferment on student loans. But for many reasons, not all of a college’s former graduates borrow money, and consequently do not defer loans while in graduate school. These graduate students will turn up as having no income or minimal income -- even if being in graduate school is their intended goal, and their undergraduate institution prepared them well for graduate study.

And in any case, earnings are more related to the choice of occupation than to the choice of college. And what about controlling salary data for location? If large numbers of a college’s graduates settle in relatively low-cost areas of the country, the average salaries for their students will be lower than at other colleges.

Also, this emphasis on earning is at odds with President Obama’s emphasis on the need for more teachers, social workers, geriatric care workers and child care workers. None of these professions is what one would call highly compensated.

And why does the site use the six-year graduation rate as a measure of success? Why not use the four-year graduation rate? Surely families don’t really want to know how many students take six years to go through a four-year program.

But one of the most disturbing aspects of this scorecard is its reliance on income data retrieved from the IRS and matched with student loan information possessed by the Department of Education. One had the notion that the IRS data would be protected from use by any other federal agency. And how is the employment data ever to be verified if the public does not have access to information that is likely to have the consequences that this scorecard may have?

On top of all this, as American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad has already pointed out, no external review was performed before the site went live. Now that college officials are getting a chance to look at it, many are seriously concerned about the reliability of the data.

The good news on that score is that there are already valuable tools in place. One of the best is the U-CAN website already mentioned. This resource provides comparable information about each participating college, with links to more detailed information if desired. I think that this resource would be far more helpful to students and their families than the new Scorecard.

The Obama administration has more support than it might realize from the very colleges and universities it is trying to evaluate. We too wish to be as transparent as possible about what is going on at our schools, about what it costs to attend and about what our alumni do with their lives after graduation. Together we want to help prospective students make responsible choices that suit their circumstances and their dreams for the future.

The new College Scorecard, however, seems to have a great potential to mislead, misinform and discourage students and their families. Talk about defeating the purpose.


Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis, Md.


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