The steps that President Obama promised in his State of the Union address to control college costs and give consumers more information on the prices and values of individual colleges have drawn tepid responses from educational groups, who said the measures seemed generally positive but had many blanks to be filled in.
As Obama promised, the White House unveiled an interactive College Scorecard Web site last week that allows anyone to retrieve the net cost — not the full “sticker price” — of attending a particular college, along with data on student loan repayment and the loan default and graduation rates.
The new site follows other steps the administration has taken — including the introduction of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s online college cost-comparison tool, and the creation of a uniform “shopping sheet” of financial information, since adopted by many colleges, to enable families to make apples-to-apples comparisons that had been elusive.
But some of the data in the new scorecard is a few years old, and most of it has been available from other sources, notably the federal government’s own College Navigator site. Further, the information is presented as averages and medians that might have little relevance to individual families.
The scorecard does connect to each institution’s net price calculator, which allows individualized cost estimates, but it does not provide side-by-side comparisons of multiple schools, as other government sites do.
“This puts the key data together in a consumer-friendly way, which I think is important, because even motivated and informed consumers have a hard time finding and interpreting the data,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group that works to make it easier to get information about colleges.
But her group complained that the borrowing and default figures in the scorecard were misleading, and said it was “two steps forward, one step back.”
One example of the sometimes confusing nature of the website: the average net cost figure for UC Davis after grants and scholarships.
A dial indicates where the campus falls nationally — on the line between “low” and “medium” — with the figure $14,072, without explaining that figure is from 2010-11, the most current number that’s been released by the Department of Education.
Alongside it in a box, the site indicates that net cost to UCD students declined 4.6 percent. That’s an accurate figure, too — but for 2007 to 2009.
The scorecard is “not a game-changer as much as the administration would like to believe,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a major association of colleges and universities.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Education said the scorecard would “help families easily compare schools on value and affordability,” but said the department could not yet elaborate on the plans.
One highly anticipated element of the scorecard would show how the recent graduates of each school fare in the job market and how much money they are making, fulfilling Obama’s promise to show “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
But that tool does not exist yet — the scorecard simply says that the Department of Education is working on it — and experts say it probably would require a change in federal law to put it into effect. The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act prohibits the government from keeping the kind of information that would be needed: tracking millions of people’s educational backgrounds.
Similar information is already available, though it is not as complete as what the federal government could produce by tapping into tax return data.
PayScale, a company that analyzes payroll data for millions of workers, publishes annual rankings of colleges based on graduates’ long-term earnings. (PayScale ranks UCD 97th out of 850 colleges.)
Another group, College Measures, is working with several states to develop a system for rating the economic success of recent graduates by matching information from the colleges in those states to income data collected by the unemployment insurance programs.
Walter Robinson, UCD’s director of undergraduate admissions, said the information on the scorecard “is the truth, but it’s not the gospel truth.”
“It gets you close, but I don’t think it gets you spot-on to each institution you might be interested in,” he said, but added that he didn’t think that was a major concern:
“When it comes to the five or 10 institutions you’re seriously considering, you’re going to go to the primary source. You’re going to transition over to our website. When you do that, you’ll see the student testimonials, the credentials of the faculty and who we are. When it comes time to get down in the weeds and apply, you’re going to arrange a campus visit. And once you get to the UC Davis campus, it sells itself.”
The UCD page notes that its:
* Six-year graduation rate is “high,” at 81.7 percent;
* Loan default rate for graduates is 3 percent — versus a national average of 13.4 percent; and
* Students’ median borrowing is “low,” with families typically borrowing $14,500 in federal loans for a student’s undergraduate years.
— Richard Pérez-Peña of the New York Times wrote this report, to which Cory Golden of The Davis Enterprise contributed. Reach Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden