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With considerable fanfare and media attention, the White House last week released the result of the Department of Education's two-year effort to devise a new ratings system for colleges and universities-minus the ratings.  The new consumer tool, known as the College Scorecard, provides key measures of institutional performance in a clear, concise format designed to be easy to access on mobile devices.

While some of the data have been collected and provided via the National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator website and additional means for years, other data are new, including loan repayment rates and income data pulled from the IRS for former students. Notably, much of the data relate to only students receiving federal aid—those who received federal loans or a federal Pell Grant—and not to the entire student population.

Two years ago, President Obama charged ED with developing a data-based system to rate the performance of colleges and universities. After receiving much feedback and encountering considerable concerns about a federal rating system across the wide diversity of institutional missions, ED scaled back the effort to focus on providing better information to measure the disparate impact of two- and four-year institutions.

In addition to helping students make better choices about which institution to attend, this effort is also focused on encouraging states, accrediting bodies, and schools themselves to use the data to improve performance. ED suggests that states may adapt performance funding measures for instance, or institutions can use the data to compare themselves to their peers.

The College Scorecard

For each institution, three key measures are highlighted:

  • Average annual cost. This is defined as "the average annual net price for federal financial aid recipients, after aid from the school, state, or federal government. For public schools, this is only the average cost for in-state students."  Unlike the College Navigator site, the Scorecard does not explain that this figure pertains to full-time beginning undergraduates based on the net cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books and supplies, room, board and other expenses).
  • Graduation rate.  This standard federal rate only looks at first-time, full-time students after four years for two-year schools and after six years at four-year schools. The national average combines both.
  • Salary after attending.  This measure is defined as "the median earnings of former students who received federal financial aid, at 10 years after entering the school." Both students who completed and did not complete their degrees are included.

Scorecard users may choose to look at additional information in seven categories: costs, financial aid and debt, graduation and retention, earnings after school, student body, SAT/ACT scores, and academic programs.

And There's More

A related webpage provides open access to a massive new database of federal data, technical documentation, and two explanatory papers. "Better Information for Better College Choice & Institutional Performance" provides a policy-focused discussion of the effort. The administration also released a second, much longer and more technical paper, "Using Federal Data to Measure and Improve the Performance of U.S. Institutions of Higher Education."

A number of organizations have already been utilizing the new data set to analyze the data and compare schools in different ways. A fact sheet from the White House notes that several independent college search tools will use it, as will entities that focus on improving student outcomes.

Work in Progress?

Although they were consulted earlier in the two-year process that led up to the College Scorecard, representatives of higher education institutions were not involved in its development and were not given the opportunity to review the dataset or tool before its launch. Institutions first received notice about the launch and access to their data less than 24 hours in advance.

A number of concerns and issues have been raised, including:

  • Some two-year institutions are not included in the tool if they award more certificates than degrees, a problem ED says it is working to resolve.
  • Much of the data only include students who received federal aid (because of a restriction in federal law).
  • The outcome measures don't take into account the students' field of study or regional differences in median salaries.

The uses and limitations of the dataset will become more apparent as people have the chance to delve into the data over the next few months. ED concludes its policy paper with a promise to "rely on continued partnership and engagement with the public and the higher education community to continually test, and design measures and data available on the Scorecard."


Liz Clark

Vice President, Policy and Research


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