Government

White House Unveils College Scorecard That Replaces Its Scuttled Ratings Plan

September 12, 2015

[Last updated 9/13/2015, 3:37 p.m., with additional details.]

The White House on Saturday unveiled the new college-information website that it developed once it abandoned its ill-fated plan to rate colleges.

The new College Scorecard site, which replaces an older one of the same name, features a more modern and user-friendly design and some new information about colleges not previously available on the predecessor site or from other federal data sources. Notably, for each college, it includes measurements of students’ earnings six and 10 years after they started at a college and data showing the proportion of the college’s students who are repaying their student loans.

Most of the rest of the information on the new Scorecard is already available in existing federal databases, such as College Navigator.

The big reveal for the Scorecard was designed for maximum political effect. It came on the same day President Obama devoted his weekly radio address to a discussion of the Scorecard and two days before he was to join the education secretary, Arne Duncan, in Iowa, to meet with high-school students and parents to discuss college access and affordability.

The Obama administration scuttled its plan to develop college ratings after hearing from numerous experts and college officials who noted the complexity of creating a single rating system for colleges with so many different missions, student profiles, and resources.

The new Scorecard has already drawn a similar critique in a statement provided by the American Council on Education. ACE officials were briefed on the Scorecard by the Education Department.

"Developing a system of this size and scope is a complicated and nuanced endeavor, and the department has done so without any external review," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the organization, which represents colleges. "Given what we believe are significant data limitations, this revamped Scorecard may or may not provide meaningful information to the students and families it was designed to help. For example, it appears the system only provides a single number for an entire institution regardless of whether a student studied chemical engineering or philosophy, and only includes the earnings of federal student-loan borrowers."

Earnings and Repayment Data

The new College Scorecard uses earnings data obtained from the Internal Revenue Service and displays it in two ways. It shows the median salary of students 10 years after they first enrolled in the college (and compares it to the national average of $34,343); and it shows the proportion of a college's students with incomes greater than that of the average high-school graduate (about $25,000) six years after enrolling in the college. Data for students who did not receive federal loans or grants are not included.

For now, the Scorecard's earnings numbers do not make distinctions based on what students studied, but the department said that could come in later versions. A number of college reformers have been pressing for more information on the earnings of college graduates, and several college guides already produce such reports, based on private sources like PayScale. Still, the use of earnings data in a government-run college-search tool remains controversial to many in higher education.

The Scorecard’s use of repayment rates as a measurement also introduces a new approach to assessing how a college’s students are managing their student-loan debt. It shows the proportion of students who have paid at least $1 toward the principal on their student loans within three years of leaving college. Many experts contend that such a "repayment rate" metric offers a more complete picture than the default rates that the department tracks and publishes each year. That is because some colleges keep those rates lower using "default-management" tactics that are not always in the best interests of the borrowers.

A number of outside groups had urged the department to include additional consumer-oriented features, such as warning flags for colleges that are under federal or state investigation. It doesn’t. But it does indicate if the college is among those that the Department of Education has placed under a category of surveillance it calls "Heightened Cash Monitoring 2" for financial or other reasons.

In a briefing with reporters Friday evening, White House officials said the new Scorecard, specifically designed for use on mobile devices, would be of better help to students in finding the right college than many of the existing commercial guides.

The department also created a new "technical site" for researchers, policy makers, and others, which will include analyses and additional data, such as college-graduation rates for students who receive Pell Grants.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.