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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: College Scorecard is useless data dump

In 2013 President Barack Obama announced an initiative to create a “College Scorecard”; that is, comprehensive data about colleges nationwide designed to keep colleges accountable for their rising costs.

In theory, this is a valuable effort. Measures like average tuition charged, the number of low-income students enrolled and the debt that graduates accumulate after graduation are key to providing students and parents the know-how they need to make educated financial decisions.

After all, college debt is clearly on the rise, and so is college tuition. That’s where the accountability portion comes in: in an ideal world, parents and students would know what they were paying for. They would also know how likely it is that they’ll be able to pay down their nearly inevitable debts after graduation.

Such a scorecard would also help to settle the battle over whether the benefits of a private education really outweigh the benefits of a state school—because the cost certainly does.

A few weeks ago, Obama finally unveiled his “College Scorecard.” The only problem is that it’s not actually a scorecard.

There is certainly data; 171 megabytes of it, to be exact. The data certainly addresses some of the measures the administration promised it would. Data about low-income students, average tuition, average debt after graduation, average salary after graduation and percent of students who are paying down their debt… It’s all there.

In fact, that’s part of the problem. So much data can be overwhelming, especially for high school seniors who, most likely, have never made a major financial decision like the one they are now facing. They’re also likely not experts in statistical analysis.

“My college decision really came down to the money,” said Exene Anderson, a sophomore studying molecular and cellular biology.

 “It would have been great to have these tools as a senior, but I really wouldn’t have known where to start with that much information,” NPR actually took some of the data and ran some analyses with it, creating charts that compare some of the information in a side-by-side format. Students can, for example, see “schools that emphasize upward mobility.”  The category ranks schools based on the share of students receiving Pell Grants, net price for families making less than $48,000, share of first-generation college students, default rates, on-time graduation rates and median income 10 years after entry.

What separates NPR’s rankings from the so-called “College Scorecard” is the fact that it used the data to make value judgments about the schools. If the Obama administration had done that, it would have been far more justified in calling it a “scorecard”.

Instead, they’ve left students with a data dump of epic proportions. In order to make a comparison similar to those made by NPR, a student would have to figure out which data is relevant to their questions and do individual searches to pull out the schools that matched it.

It’s great that the government is beginning to put more effort into helping students make informed financial decisions when choosing colleges. However, its data is just a little too empirical to be really useful. In order to truly help students, it should provide more tools for comparison than just raw data. Until then, seniors will likely continue to struggle in their searches for affordable schools.

Follow Maddie Pickens on Twitter.

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