Creating a one-size-fits-all fact sheet to help families choose among the multitude of colleges in the United States is not an easy task. We commend the White House and the Department of Education’s efforts to do just that by redesigning the college scorecard—a one-page summary of the cost, debt, and earnings potential of every degree-granting college in the United States. The scorecard—announced by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address this week and released yesterday—addresses many of the concerns we raised about last year’s draft scorecard in our report, “Improving the College Scorecard.”
CAP brought the original college scorecard draft to focus groups with college-bound high school students, who identified potential problems with its design and content. The new scorecard responds to these students’ concerns in the following areas:
- Better layout. We asked for a more readable design, and the Department of Education delivered. The new college scorecard features easy-to-read, clearly labeled sections with simple graphics that give students an idea of how an institution measures up to other colleges nationwide. In addition, this scorecard contains a plain-language description of net price—a college’s tuition minus any discounts such as grants and scholarships, which totals what a student actually pays to attend any particular school—a concept that was particularly troublesome for some students.
- Customization. CAP found that students want to know what they specifically will pay to attend a particular college, not what the average student will pay. The new scorecard contains a link to the college’s net price calculator, which allows them to get a price estimate by entering information on each family’s particular financial circumstances.
- Alternative measures of debt. The original college scorecard draft measured student debt as “the percentage of total loan amounts being repaid by former students,” a concept that the students we spoke with found difficult to understand. The new college scorecard replaces that measure with student loan default rates and median student loan debt for each college. While the results of our focus groups did not support inclusion of default rates, they found that students responded very well to information about average loan debt. In particular, we recommended that loan debt be put in the context of students’ lives by including information such as average monthly payments for each institution. The new scorecard prominently features that information.
- Working toward better employment data. Our report emphasized students’ interest in employment outcomes—including average earnings, as well as employment rates and earnings by major. Though the scorecard does not currently include this information, the Department of Education plans to release earnings information this year, and the scorecard encourages students to seek detailed employment outcome information from the universities themselves.
Of course, there are still some areas for improvement. As the Department of Education makes changes to the scorecard over the coming year, we urge it to consider:
- Including institutional contact information. The college scorecard will never be able to answer everything—it may inspire more questions than it answers. So it is important to include the contact information for relevant offices at the college or university such as admissions and financial aid offices.
- Consumer testing. CAP’s focus groups were limited both in terms of scope and type of student. The Department of Education should continue testing the scorecard with students, especially nontraditional ones such as older adults and part-time students. It should also conduct focus groups with parents to gauge their reactions to the scorecard. In particular, the department should test whether both students and parents can easily understand the language included in the new draft, and whether the new graphics convey the appropriate messages.
- Collecting data specifically for the scorecard. The information presented in the scorecard is limited to the data currently available to the Department of Education. That’s why policymakers are likely to include in it information such as default rates, even though our focus groups show that most students will not use these data to inform their decisions. To improve the usability and relevance of the scorecard, the department should collect new data based on what families want to know and can easily incorporate into their college decisions.
- Finding ways to get the scorecard into students’ hands. The new version of the college scorecard is currently only available on federal websites. The Department of Education should work with Congress and college access advocates to find ways to put the scorecard in places where students are more likely to find it, starting with the places students already go for college information: high school guidance counselors’ offices and college websites.
CAP shares the president’s goal of helping students find quality, affordable postsecondary institutions. Access to easy-to-understand, comparable information about the value of a college’s programs will help families make sound choices about where to apply and how to pay for college. The new college scorecard is a significant step in that direction.
Julie Margetta Morgan is the Director of Postsecondary Access and Success at the Center for American Progress.