How College Scorecard Can Help With College Selection Process

September 15, 2014 5:00 AM

Photo Credit Thinkstock

Photo Credit Thinkstock

The average total cost of one year at a public four-year college is more than $18,000. The price tag more than doubles for students attending a private institution. A college education is costly, but a projected 22 million Americans will take on the expense, most incurring debt, for the fall 2014 semester. It is an investment; one that data shows pays a good rate of return. According to a 2013 College Board report, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $21,000 more annually than those who have no education beyond high school. However, not all colleges are equal when it comes to graduating students who go on to have successful careers. 

What is the College Scorecard?

The College Scorecard is a database of expenses and outcomes at post-secondary institutions offering certificates, associate and bachelor’s degrees. This planning tool allows students and parents to compare key pieces of data — costs, graduation rates, loan default rates, average amount borrowed — from colleges across the country. While much of this information is available on College websites, the Scorecard has powerful search functions that make it easier to gather information and compare institutions side-by-side. In addition to providing information to consumers, the Obama administration believes this level of transparency will encourage colleges to actively work to improve their affordability and graduation rates.

How does the College Scorecard work?

College Scorecard users who already are considering several different colleges can search by institution to find and compare data. Prospective students may also enter specific criteria to find colleges with the attributes they seek. For example, a student interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement on a small campus in a New England city can select this combination of features. This particular search returns two universities, Bay State College and Western New England University. The future crime fighter may then compare the data for these schools.

What will a degree cost?

The college costs displayed on each institution’s data page is the average amount first-year, degree-seeking students pay after all financial aid is deducted. This figure is useful for comparing colleges, but an individual’s actual costs depends on their own financial situation. A student’s financial aid package and scholarships will determine their actual costs.

What percentage of students complete a degree program?

The graduation rate is useful as it may indicate the level of support a student receives while attending. However, there may be other factors contributing to graduation rates. Students unsure of their commitment to a college education may enroll in community colleges to get a feel for the higher education experience. A low graduation rate at a community college may not be reflective of the college’s programs, rather it may indicate it serves students still exploring their education options.

How much federal student loan debt does the average student incur?

The loan default rate is based on government data for federal student loans. Many students also borrow from private lenders, which is not included in this data. The default rate indicates how well students at a particular institution fare after graduation. A high default rate suggests many students were unable to secure a position after college that paid well enough for them to meet their loan obligations. Typical student loan payments and median student loan debt refer to federal loans. These figures, like total costs, are unique to each borrower and are presented to give future students a general idea of how much debt they may incur.

The College Scorecard was launched in February of 2013, so there has been little time for feedback from students. SUNY Stony Brook student Alissa Haller isn’t impressed with the site. “There are probably 10 other sites that provide the same exact information,” she says. She notes that it analyzes college purely from a financial perspective while there are many reasons for getting a college education that transcend material gain. Haller does admit that those unfamiliar with college websites may find the information at College Scorecard helpful.  

The College Scorecard is a work in progress. Many prospective students want to know how graduates fared once out in the world of work. As of the start of the 2014-2015 school year, the Department of Education has not added employment and income information but plans, at some point, to have statistics on the kind of jobs graduates have found and their typical earnings. For now, students may get this information directly from a college.

Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.