The U.S. Department of Education has unveiled a new College Scorecard intended to better inform prospective students, the public, and policymakers about graduation rates and college students’ earnings once in the workforce. Any college or university in the United States eligible to participate in Federal Student Financial Assistance programs (e.g., credit-granting institutions) is available to search. The online scorecard uses three primary metrics: average annual cost, graduation rate and average salary 10 years after attending. Additional information on each institution is available regarding financial aid and student debt, graduation and retention rates, student body composition, and the most popular degree/certificate programs. The full dataset is also available for download for users interested in doing additional analysis not provided via the online tool.
Limitations of the new college scorecard
While the data is informative and relatively accessible, there are limitations and caveats as noted by several recent news stories from National Public Radio, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times.
Earnings after graduation
The new College Scorecard site shows an institution average of how much graduates earn, but prospective students who turn to the revamped tool to estimate their future earnings probably won’t get a realistic sense of what they can expect to make after graduating. A prospective college student is likely going to want more detailed information by area of study and type of degree—a bachelor’s in engineering, for example. For USHE institutions, such data has been available online for over two years (includes earnings during the 1st year and 5th year after graduation). Additionally, prospective students can search job placement rates by area of study and degree type, as well as find out the industries graduates are employed in, sorted by specific institution and area of study. Interestingly, graduates in engineering are employed in a variety of industries including education, manufacturing, retail, and healthcare.
Even Utah’s wage and employment data are limited to graduates employed in Utah in positions that are covered by the state’s unemployment insurance. Missing from the data are Utah graduates who graduated from a non-USHE institution, work in other states, are federal workers, members of the military, and the self-employed, among others. In other words, wage outcomes alone are not a measure of quality or effectiveness at any institution.
First-time, full-time undergraduate students
The methodology behind the graduation rates only count first-time, full-time undergraduate students. The definition narrows the number of students included in the analysis considerably. For years now, the U.S. Department of Education has relied on Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) graduation rates, which reflect only first-time, full-time undergraduate students. More and more, the student population of America is more diverse than those who attend college full-time and complete it in a single shot. In fact, 46% of USHE students attend part-time (e.g. fewer than 12 credits for undergraduate students). At Weber State University, the College Scorecard counts 2,912 first-time freshmen in Fall 2014, where its total student headcount was 26,913. The USHE wage and employment data, while not perfect, uses a larger cohort that is more reflective of true wages earned by college graduates.
What data should be used to compare institutions?
The new College Scorecard from the Department of Education repackages existing data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) survey data. The College Navigator, a web-based tool maintained by NCES, provides greater depth of information along with functionality to compare and download data from selected institutions for additional use.
Additionally, every college and university eligible to participate in Federal Student Financial Assistance programs is already required to provide a Net Price Calculator on its website. Such calculators take into consideration important cost factors including expected financial aid eligibility, living arrangements, income, and type of tuition.
When it comes to comparing colleges and finding the right fit, it truly depends on the individual situation of each student, including the level of preparedness, financial need/ability, area of study and many other factors. Below are ten suggested considerations when comparing colleges and universities:
10 factors to review when comparing colleges:
- Types of academic programs and degrees (including graduate programs)
- Net cost of attendance (tuition, fees, other costs)
- Available scholarships and aid
- Wage information after graduation (by program, if possible)
- Percentage of students employed within a year of graduation
- Location, student body size, part time vs. full-time students, ethnicity
- Admissions requirements and acceptance selectivity (average GPA, ACT, etc.)
- Graduation rate
- Amount of student debt upon graduation
- Retention (students who return after their first year)