If you’re a high school student in America, you’re probably no stranger to the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings. Comparing schools’ acceptance rates, alumni donations, and other mystery metrics, U.S. News and World Report quantifies every higher education institution in America into a single number. Truly, it’s like a bad game of Hot or Not: unexplainable rankings with no rhyme or reason as to why.
But #ThanksObama, there’s a new platform in town that aims to increase transparency to college affordability. In collaboration with teachers, students, and parents, the Department of Education just revamped their College Scorecard. “Everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value—like whether they’re likely to graduate, find good jobs, and pay off their loans,” noted Obama in September. Students are able to search up one of 7,000 institutions, and learn much more than the basic tuition cost and graduation rate.
Universities often neglect their students after they graduate, which is why Obama aimed to focus on the post-graduation finances. College Scorecard includes how much graduates earn, how much debt they owe, and even what percentage of students can pay their loans back. Now, high school students are finally able to know exactly what they’re paying for and what the payoff will be. College Scorecard should be lauded for presenting the data in an unbiased manner, letting students come to their own conclusions. With many other systems that rank schools as #1, #2, #3, and so on, many students get too caught up in attending only a “Top 10” school, even though the exact number is quite trivial.
Since the information is aggregated by data from the US Department of Education and the US Treasury, much of this information is difficult to find elsewhere. For example, College Scorecard emphasizes “upwards mobility”, including percentage of students receiving federal aid, cost for families making under $48k, percentage of first-generation and low-income students, and even average monthly loan payments. It also breaks down how much higher education will actually cost based on your family’s household income bracket. With this new initiative, many high school students now have the resources to make more informed decisions about the next step in their education.
However, many students, educators, and even statisticians are beginning to criticize Obama’s new plan. Even though most students make college decisions based on financial aid, too much data can be overwhelming. Now that College Scorecard has presented the information, they should also help students interpret the data and actually make sense of it all. Some critics claim that the data is too empirical to be interpreted well. For example, Trinity Washington University ranked on the lower end of graduation rate and students paying off debt, but President Pat McGuire notes that these statistics give an unfair perspective. Since many Trinity students work and attend school part-time. it takes much longer to graduate; College Scorecard doesn’t reveal that information to students, who may now automatically write off a great institution over a misinterpreted piece of data. If student take these metrics too seriously, it could be harmful to universities with unique circumstances.
Obama’s College Scorecard has also received criticism for its exclusion of some conservative-leaning schools, such as Christendom College, Hillsdale College, and Grove City College. The reason has nothing to do with political stance, but rather these schools refuse to accept money from the government, including financial aid to students, and refuse to report racial demographics required in the Title IV federal financial aid program. Thus, without data collection, College Scorecard is unable to report certain schools that students may otherwise not have heard of. If College Scorecard would like to be truly inclusive to all higher education institutions, the Department of Education may need to look into other ways to collect data for those schools who opt-out of federal funding.
With College Scorecard, our President intended to expand the dialogue about college, though subsequently, he may have narrowed it. This system emphasizes money as the sole determining factor, even though students should continue to search for schools with challenging curriculum and immersive programs. High school students should use this metric in conjunction with many others, taking everything with a grain of salt.