How the College Scorecard Can Be Improved

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a new College Scorecard designed to help students and their families select colleges and universities to attend. The College Scorecard is a good start but needs to be more sensitive to the growing diversity of our nation and our colleges and universities.

The scorecard is an interactive data tool that is located on the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site and focuses on two main ideas: (1) transparency about colleges and universities and (2) their affordability. It provides students and parents with data about individual colleges and universities that they designate. The scorecard also allows users to search for colleges that correspond to criteria that are of interest to them, such as location, size of enrollment, major field offerings, degree level, tuition and fees, graduation rate, average student-loan accumulation, average repayment amount, and loan-default rates.

As we both find great value in consumer awareness and protection, there is a lot to like about the new scorecard. And surely, any limitations in this first version will be dealt with as the tool is improved over time. The idea is that for the millions of people searching for colleges and universities each year, there is now valuable information on the Internet that will aid them in comparing institutions and selecting one that fits their needs.

In playing around with the College Scorecard, we developed a list of features that we would like to see in a future version—features that could reveal the diversity of the institutions, such as the proportion of the institution’s student enrollment from each of the 50 states, the gender representation in the various major fields, differences in performance measures such as retention, grade point averages, and graduation rates by race and sex. Size and location are two very useful criteria, but it would also be helpful to be able to create clusters of institutions by richer criteria such as whether they are research universities or liberal-arts colleges, or whether they are classified among the federal government’s designated Minority Serving Institutions, or MSIs.

We imagine a next-generation scorecard, for example, that permits consumers to consider categories, like historically black colleges and universities, of which there are 105, and Hispanic-serving institutions, of which there are 310. Some of these institutions may show up poorly on some of the current scorecard indicators, such as graduation rate, loan indebtedness, and default rates. In fact, because their primary market is economically disadvantaged people, the only criterion on the initial list on which MSIs may excel is sticker price.

Scorecards of the future might include some criteria that represent the particular emphases of categories or clusters of institutions, like HBCUs and HSIs. Next-generation criteria, like proportion of students who are the first in their families to attend college or the proportion qualifying for maximum financial aid, may tell more about the institutions, and may help to explain some of their seemingly low productivity on other criteria like graduation rates or high loan-default rates.

These kinds of changes would help students and families who have narrowed their choices to a particular type of institution but are choosing from within the type. For these consumers, it may be useful to know about the work-study opportunities, study abroad, civic engagement, and record of preparing and placing their former students in graduate and professional-degree programs.

When offering the general public an opportunity to compare and contrast colleges and universities, it is imperative that these comparisons take into account both student and institutional characteristics. Only then will we have a fair and useful way to make comparisons and keep score of colleges and universities.

Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Michael T. Nettles is senior vice president of the Policy Evaluation & Research Center at Educational Testing Service.

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