Blog

Grading the College Scorecard

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

What is the College Scorecard?
Apparently even President Obama doesn’t like the US News college ranking system. Perhaps that is the inspiration behind a new White House initiative to create easy to use and understand “College Scorecards” to help students determine which school is a good fit for them. Prototype samples are available on the “College Scorecard” website where visitors can leave suggestions for the final version, which should have an updated prototype in late February (NAICU.edu, Feb. 15, 2012). The proposed scorecards contain the following information:

  • What will it cost to attend?
  • How likely am I to graduate and how long will it take?
  • Will I be able to repay my student loans after I graduate?
  • How much debt will I have when I graduate?
  • Will I be able to get a job after I graduate?

For each question, the scorecard contains a brief written summary on the left-hand side and a chart on the right which locates the institution in relation to the larger higher education landscape. The written information is a basic summary of the most salient details needed to answer the questions.

For example in answer to the question, "What will it cost to attend?"  The following information is provided: the annual tuition and fees for in- and out-of-state students, the total cost before any financial aid, and the average cost after grants and scholarships (the net cost to attend). For this final category, a graph of this institution in relation to others is provided.

The grade is . . .?
It is always bad form to grade an early prototype of a project and penalize the creator for their thinking through of an idea. However, constructive feedback definitely has a place in the development process, and this effort seems entirely open to receiving feedback through the submission boxes available on the website. At this point, almost everything about this project seems negotiable – right down to the name. It is definitely a work in progress, but people always like a concise letter or number grade to refer to – so I would give this first draft of the College Scorecard a C or C- right now, but an incomplete overall. Here’s why.

The information given is very limited, and thus only slightly to moderately useful. It seems as if this would be a tool best utilized by prospective students after they have done some initial research about the schools they are interested in to determine if the institutions they are looking at even have degree programs that they want and other more specific details, such as number of students, internship placement, etc. Overall, in its current incarnation, this could not be used as the first step in the college search process. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

What would make it better?
In one word – granularity. While the desire to provide the most straightforward, easily interpretable tool is understandable, there is no reason that, given current technology, this tool cannot be both elegantly straightforward and simultaneously provide access to intensely detailed information.  What this effort does not remind me of is the tutor information tools available on Khan Academy. The Khan site provides extremely detailed, granular-level information tools that are customizable so as to allow a very insightful, yet easy to understand examination of complex data.

If the College Scorecards were thought of as an interactive information portal which summarizes more detailed data rather than as a static "card," it could fulfill the function of providing the big picture overview as well as a more fine-grained examination of individual schools and comparisons between them. Interactive database technology can expand the form to provide as much detail as a student could need to make their decision.

Some examples of the potential of this tool are; the ability to select multiple institutions and generate a comparison chart for all the choices displayed together. Or, rather than the far too simplistic "Earnings Potential" for graduates of an institution as a whole, most popular majors at each institution could be searchable with a job placement and potential salary index or graph for graduates of that program in relation to the same major at other institutions, or different majors.

Take advantage of "big government!"
No question that I am an advocate of "more government is better government" – our government is there as a public service and should provide all the possible benefits that it can – so we should not be satisfied with an effort that will only be minimally useful at best. Any institution that receives federal funding could be mandated to provide as much information as is needed to make this project truly useful and innovative. It would be a moderately easy task to set up a national database which colleges and universities are required to keep up-to-date as part of their mission. The College Scorecard could be the gateway to this database, proving both easy to use summary sheets and an ability to dive deep into the data to see what’s behind the numbers.