The Obama administration released a new college scorecard for comparing institutions of higher learning based more on financial considerations than academic ones, drawing both praise and criticism from academia.
In a video accompanying the release, President Barack Obama said the new tool was designed to “help students and parents identify which schools provide the biggest bang for your buck”: “You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans,” he said.
But for many schools, how much graduates earn isn’t really what going to the school is all about.
For example, graduates from the Johns Hopkins University make a median salary of $69,200 a decade after enrolling in the undergraduate school. The cost to attend the Baltimore university is about $26,600 a year, according to the scorecard. Graduates from the Maryland Institute College of Art make $31,400 annually a decade after enrolling, and that school costs more than $35,000 a year, the Baltimore Sun reports.
“If you’re just looking at the cost and salary after attendance, it’s a little too simplistic,” MICA spokeswoman Debra Rubino was quoted as saying. “It’s a little bit more complicated than first meets the eye. … Maybe we should be looking at how much we pay our teachers.”
Kurt Schmoke, University of Baltimore president and former city mayor, told the Sun that the new scorecard “misinforms more than it informs”:
At the University of Baltimore, we have many students who are 28 and older, who are transferring in from other campuses and who are working full- or part-time jobs. Why compare us to an institution where the average age is 18 or 19, and where a large majority of the student population is coming straight out of high school?
We hope the U.S. Department of Education continues to work on the scorecard model, keeping in mind that one size does not fit all.
“In an economy where some higher education is still the surest ticket to the middle class, the choices that Americans make when searching for and selecting a college have never been more important,” the department said in an email message announcing the scorecard last week.
What’s missing in the new tool?
I logged onto the site and tried it out, pretending I was a student. Making up a career and undergraduate major, I quickly discovered that data are incomplete. For example, the average earnings are computed only for graduates who took out federal loans while attending the school. What about people, like me, who took out no loans while I was in college? My salary isn’t even part of the data.
The reason for that, I imagine, is that data about salaries are collected in different places from data about college attendance. The only way the federal government would be able to map my salary 10 years after graduating to the college I attended would be if my Social Security Number were on a student loan record for that college. Since it’s not, the government can’t include my salary in the average earnings for University of Illinois grads.
It’s not exactly apparent from the website how much data like this is missing, but if it’s a significant amount, students who use the tool are likely to be led astray by what President George W Bush would have called “faulty intelligence.”
Another problem with the new tool is that the data lump all majors into the same average.
For Harvard graduates, the average salary’s about $87,000. But as Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, put it, the scorecard “tells you what people make, on average, but nobody is average. … The misleading part is the variation,” the Chronicle of Higher Education quoted him as saying. “If you’re a French-literature major at Harvard, you’d better not look at these data and think you’re going to earn $87,000.”
With those caveats, the tool is certainly better than having nothing or no data, but be careful how you use that information. In an economy where some higher education is still the surest ticket to the middle class, the choices we make when searching for and selecting a college have never been more important.