INSIDE HIGHER ED. FEBRUARY 14, 2013. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama announced a new College Scorecard that would help prospective college students “compare schools based on a simple criteria — where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
And those are just the problems that colleges and university leaders have with it – it’s too simple and too focused on finance.
After the White House unveiled the new scorecard Wednesday, some educators quickly expressed reservations that the tool presented an oversimplified view of the college-selection process focused exclusively on the short-term financial ramifications of a degree. In particular, the concerns are coming from institutions and organization that promote a liberal arts education rather than job-specific training, whose leaders worry that the lack of other information could potentially lead to students and parents making bad decisions.
The scorecard presents information about default and graduation rates, average borrowing amounts, price and postgraduate employment at a selected institution. Wealthy institutions where borrowing is minimal will likely look good in some of the data points. So will institutions that educate students in technical or professional fields that tend to result in higher salaries, particularly right out of college.
But the scorecard does not include information about learning outcomes, long-term student success or student satisfaction, factors that many in higher education say are equally valuable and are areas where institutions that value general education would likely perform well.
“It takes a very narrow focus on the whole idea of how one chooses a college and what one should consider,” said W. Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College, in Illinois. “The criteria the scorecards rank colleges on, it dismisses some of the reasons students go to college in the first place, some of the reasons we exist.”
At a time when several groups are trying to rally support behind the idea that there is more to a college education than short-term postgraduate employment, the scorecard presents another challenge to that effort and potentially an implicit endorsement that such components do not matter.
“As a tool for a prospective student to evaluate the potential value of a particular college education, it is extremely incomplete at best and misleading at worst,” said Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement for the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
The cost of college and postgraduate employment opportunities have come to dominate much of the public discussion of higher education. A recent survey by the Pew and Lumina foundations found that about two-thirds of Americans believe getting a good job is an important reason for postsecondary education. Last year more than 65 percent of respondents to a Sallie Mae survey of parents and students said their motivation for attending college was that it was “needed for a desired occupation” or to “earn more money.”
Students and families have also complained that the cost of college is opaque and that information about postgraduate employment is not readily available. And some college presidents — especially at institutions where many students seek professional training — were quick to embrace the system. Ángel Cabrera, the president of George Mason University, took to Twitter to say: “We pass the White House test with high marks…. Low tuition, high graduation rate, low loan default (+high paying jobs).”
But some proponents of liberal education urged more of a focus on other measures. Humphreys said AAC&U and others met with the administration about ways the White House could include additional outcome measures, such as responses from the National Survey of Student Engagement, in the report. But those measures were not included.
Employment data tend to show that while graduates of liberal arts institutions do not have salaries as high as their counterparts at institutions with a more technical focus, that gap closes over time, particularly because graduates of liberal arts colleges go to graduate and professional schools at higher rates.
“We know for a fact that liberal arts graduates tend to do better in their careers over the long run,” said Rich Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents about 600 small private colleges. “Short-term measures don’t tell you enough of the story. We don’t want people to go to school for just one reason. There are lots of reasons that factor into that decision, and the scorecard privileges the wrong ones.”
Barnds argues that the scorecard will disadvantage community colleges, regional public universities and nonelite private universities, which tend not to have the same resources as more elite institutions and often serve groups of students that are not as prepared as others for college-level work and have a more difficult time progressing and graduating.
He also said the scorecard is likely to advantage coastal institutions over those in the middle of the country, since costs of living are higher on the coasts, and graduates on the coast are likely to be paid more than their Midwestern peers for the same work.
“Is this just going to be the next U.S. News and World Report?” Barnds said. “Is this just going to be the next thing that colleges and universities try to game? You wonder, if places want grads with high salaries, are we going to see a boom of places introducing engineering schools?”
In addition to questioning the fundamental assumptions of the scorecard, some individuals and organizations have pointed out problems with the data that are included in the reports.
While praising some aspect of the scorecard in a blog post Wednesday, the Institute for College Access and Success pointed out several problems with the data. The loan default rates included in the report, the institute noted, are published without any sense of what percentage of students borrow. So an institution that generally graduates students with no debt but has a small percentage of students borrow might have a high default rate. “Implying that the default rate alone is indicative of student outcomes more generally does a disservice to would-be students,” the institute noted.
TICAS also noted that median borrowing figures are presented without regard to whether students complete college. An institution might have a low median borrowing rate because students borrow for one year and then drop out. “This makes colleges with high drop-out rates look like a good deal, compares apples to oranges, and undermines the value of other outcome information,” the institute noted.
Some colleges have complained that they do not come up when their zip codes are searched. For example, Ursinus College in Collegeville, Penn. (zip code 19426), does not come up when that zip code is searched.