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How far can Obama’s College Scorecard fix college affordability issues? Michael Fleshman, CC BY-NC-SA

Here’s the score for Obama’s college scorecard: more minuses than pluses

This past Saturday, September 12, following an announcement in President Obama’s weekly address, the US Department of Education released its College Scorecard.

The president claimed additional information in the scorecard would “cover every institution in higher education” and provide prospective students and their families with reliable data to “identify which schools provide the biggest bang for your buck.” In reality, that’s not quite true.

Like any president or chancellor, I am keenly interested in how our institutions are portrayed to prospective students and their families. With 13 two-year liberal arts transfer institutions and a fully online program, the University of Wisconsin Colleges are particularly unique. I worry that we do not fit the mold and that the data assumptions underlying any dashboard will not tell the whole story.

I observed the Twitterverse that was abuzz all weekend, as higher education researchers, associations, special interest groups and pundits weighed in on the scorecard and campuses touted their “rankings.”

While we need to wait and see how many students are using the site when compared to the broader higher ed community, we can start asking questions to gauge if the College Scorecard is – or is not – a great source of information for students and families.

What does it offer

So less than one week later, how do we score the Scorecard?

The overall concept is a good one, but the devil is in the details and I do not believe we can declare the scorecard a finished product.

On its pluses, I would give it a score of four out of 10. Here are my reasons:

Affordability of higher education and student debt are top of mind for most Americans, including presidential candidates, as they should be. The US taxpayers invest billions of dollars in student aid, and we need to be held accountable. The basic College Scorecard dashboard provides a snapshot of average annual cost, graduation rate and salary after attending.

Also, as we know, attending a college or university is one of the biggest and most important investments an individual will make in his or her lifetime. Consumers probably spend more time researching the purchase of a vehicle than they spend researching a big investment such as a college education. In today’s information-saturated world, we all expect information about any product or service we purchase.

The scorecard will help students not fall into the trap of some colleges. Brian Smith, CC BY-NC-ND

Additionally, consistent with President’s Obama’s Open Government Initiative, data underlying the scorecard are open and available to researchers and developers. Experts can identify assumptions beneath the dashboards and bring those to our attention.

What is really important is that this scorecard will help students not fall into the trap of some institutions that we know are out there to prey on students. Such institutions encourage students to take on debt without fully understanding the consequences.

Potentially, the College Scorecard dashboard can help students be more discerning.

What’s wrong with this scorecard

But here are my minuses. And, if you’re counting, I give it at least a minus seven out of 10.

The scorecard relies on averages. Averaging distorts, especially when it comes to salary information. As Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), observed recently:

the institutions with larger proportions of students enrolled in high-income majors such as engineering and computer science will automatically report higher median earnings than institutions with large numbers of students enrolled in programs such as teacher education and social work.

Though there are no income restrictions for federally subsidized loans, students receiving Title IV financial aid are likely to skew toward low-income households. There is a relationship between family income and education preparation, attainment, success and completion. Higher income means greater likelihood of success in postsecondary education, and lower income generally results in the opposite.

Scorecard results would be dramatically different if all students, in addition to Title IV students, were included, but current Federal law prohibits developing a complete unit record system including all college and university students.

In addition, only first-time, full-time students are included, whereas the majority of college students in the US are “nontraditional” – that is, they are students who work, attend part-time, have families and complicated lives – and who do not fall into the “first-time, full-time” category. Transfer students are also omitted from the dataset and are not included in averages.

What is more shocking is that some pretty large institutions, like Rio Salado College in Arizona, are completely missing from the database. This was pointed out recently in a list of such institutions carried by a WCET blog, a component of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a nonprofit that works to improve access to higher ed.

Elite institutions will benefit

Morever, higher ed leaders have been concerned about the lack of transparency of desigining the scorecard.

Despite numerous requests to do so, the Department of Education did not provide opportunities for the higher education community and data analytics experts to consult on the new scorecard. Higher ed leaders can provide great insight into the complexities of student data.

Elite institutions will benefit. tfxc, CC BY-NC-ND

As the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) stated,

we are disappointed in the lack of adequate transparency and external consultation and review of this highly technical, very complex, and consequential initiative.“

What I also noticed is how elite, selective institutions will rise to the top. I wasn’t surprised to receive a message from one of my alma maters, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), touting their results on the scorecard.

UCLA is a great institution and it is highly selective, admitting only 18.55% of applicants. Most students won’t be able to go there. They get the cream of the crop in all categories. And of course those students have good results. Compare that with a high access institution or a two-year institution, such as the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

The president of Trinity Washington University observed the scorecard merely highlights the "haves” and “have nots” in the postsecondary ecosystem:

And this economic chasm is seriously influenced by gender, race, and social class—issues on which the College Scorecard is silent, but which affect just about every factoid presented.

Just another partial resource

Don’t get me wrong. Postsecondary education is one of the surest pathways to economic and social mobility in this country. As a first-generation college graduate, my life would be completely different had I not completed my education, and I have devoted my career to ensuring others have similar opportunities.

A statement from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) observes:

A college degree demonstrably increases the likelihood of gaining employment, but the true “value” of college is ultimately about learning and the difference a good education makes in many aspects of our graduates’ lives.

After having some time to process and analyze the new scorecard, one thing is clear – while offering some positives, there are still major flaws that need to be addressed in order for it to accomplish what the president said it would.

Until then, students and families should recognize the scorecard for what it is – just another partial resource to consult in the college selection process.

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