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The Final Score – Revisiting the College Scorecard

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

It is finally here. President Obama announced the College Scorecard as part of his State of the Union Address and it was officially released in mid-February, 2013. I had evaluated the early prototype of the Scorecard in February of 2012 with mixed findings. Now that it is released publicly, it seems fair to give it a more thorough test-drive and see if the poor reception that it has received thus far is warranted. To do this, I have decided to engage in a bit of role play/usability testing based on the college search criteria that I established in my January 22, 2013 post "The Rise of the Edu-sumer."

Putting the Scorecard to the Test
To evaluate the Scorecard I pretended that I am a 40-something (true), out-of-work (not true),  male (true), with an advanced degree in education (true), looking to complete an MBA program close to my home or online (not true), so I can change to a more lucrative career (not true).

I used the following criteria, gleaned from "The Rise of the Edu-sumer," to judge whether or not the College Scorecard could really help prospective students find programs that were the best fits for their career goals and financial and life circumstances.

  • Total cost
  • Financial aid availability
  • Program quality and outcomes (job placement)
  • Cost comparison between institutions
  • Overall satisfaction with the institution
  • Detailed information about transfer credits
  • Contact information for financial aid and admissions
  • An indication of whether the school matches individual needs

I conducted my search several times using different criteria as the starting points and was generally fairly happy with the results when I conducted searches within the parameters of the site (undergraduate education).

The Results
For starters the College Scorecard provides a very contemporary (Windows 8) look and feel with large easy to understand tiles that make starting your search a snap.

I began looking with the most important criterion for me – location – as my fictional self wants to stay in the city where I already live. Because it was most straightforward, I started by searching by zip code.

As you can see in the image, the tiles do a cool reshuffle when you select the type of search you will conduct. As you select each variable it is added to the search criteria in the left hand column of the site, allowing you to conduct a search based on multiple factors. Given this, I then choose the degree and major that I was interested in. For my research I decided to use the search function and type in "business."

The key word search for business returned a substantial list of possible business-related degree options of which I chose "International Business" and "Education," just because I was curious. Once your selections have been made you are prompted to choose the degree level that you are interested in. This is where I encountered my first roadblock. I was interested in a Master’s degree but was only offered options for a certificate, associate’s, or bachelor’s degrees.

At this point I was forced to reassess my previous searches because it did not appear that the degree I was interested in was available locally, even though I knew otherwise. Unfortunately changing to the more mainstream business administration major also yielded no option for a Master’s degree. I was forced to go with a BA as the closest option.

At this point I was interested in searching for total program costs and financial aid awards available and there were no convenient tiled options for those. I decided that it then must be time to "Search Institutions."

Conducting the search returned the three institutions I knew of locally as well as one that I didn’t, ITT Tech, which I was skeptical of as offering an MBA. I chose the one closest to my house to continue searching for a great match and because they are all over the news as having the nation’s #1 ranked college basketball team – Gonzaga University.

Selecting Gonzaga provided me with several nice graphics and textual information about the university in general, including the average cost, the percentage of students who graduate, the loan default rate, and the median borrowing necessary to attend. Additionally, there was an "Employment" category with an elaborate "coming soon" message being displayed.

The graphic representations of the results were very easy to interpret and presented a very clear picture of the cost of attending this university – albeit for a program other than what I had originally been searching for. Additionally, in the "Costs" section, there was a link to the "Net Price Calculator" at Gonzaga University, which allows you to more accurately determine the real cost of attending this institution, which can be seen below.

All of this was very easy to do and pretty straightforward. With one exception, I still hadn’t found any information about the kind of degree program I was actually looking for. In truth, I could have found the information much more quickly through a Google search for Spokane, WA MBA. Here are the top five results for that search.


Final Grade?
In my particular imagined case the final grade for the College Scorecard would be a resounding "F." I was completely unable to find the kind of program that I was looking for (MBA) and only through some later investigation did I realize that the Scorecard is only for those interested in an undergraduate education. This is very disappointing –worthy of the "F" really- given the large numbers of adults who are exploring new career options via graduate degrees in the wake of the economic recession.

Using the College Scorecard for its intended purpose (undergraduate programs), however, yields a very solid "C" in my opinion. It is easy to use and fairly intuitive, even for those without much computer experience. It returned accurate, if limited results which were useful and easily interpreted. It also provided links to very useful information on specific institutions’ websites that may have been much more difficult to find otherwise. Here is the final breakdown of grades based on my earlier criteria:

  • Total cost – A
  • Financial aid availability – B
  • Program quality and outcomes (job placement) – F
  • Cost comparison between institutions – B
  • Overall satisfaction with the institution -F
  • Detailed information about transfer credits – F
  • Contact information for financial aid and admissions -A
  • An indication of whether the school matches your individual needs -C

Ultimately I feel that the College Scorecard is still a work in progress that could become an invaluable tool for prospective students if it can incorporate the government’s own criteria for savvy shopping, and make an effort to pull in more data to provide prospective students and their families with a one-stop-shop for college comparison, rather than relying on links to external sites.

Have you used the College Scorecard? If so, I’d love to hear your opinion. Share it on Twitter or Google+.