Obama’s College Scorecard of Little Value to Families

During his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a new College Scorecard that he claimed “parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criterion: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” The scorecard, which can be accessed via www.WhiteHouse.gov/scorecard, provides information on the net price of attendance (the cost after loans and grants are factored in), graduation rates, loan default rates, and student borrowing. 

 Early indications are, however, that the scorecard isn’t living up to its promise. The New York Times reports that the scorecard uses old data, provides information that is already available through other sites, and “is presented as averages and medians that might have little relevance to individual families.” 

 Moreover, what the administration touts as one of the major features of the scorecard, tying graduate pay to a student’s university and major, is not yet available on the site, and might never be. This is the piece that the administration claims will deliver to students information about how they can get “the most bang for your educational buck.” Yet, as the NYT reports, the 2008 Higher Education Act prohibits the type of student data tracking that would make even that aspect of the scorecard feasible.

 It’s a good thing that this new federal college scorecard appears to be dead in the water. As Stuart Butler and I have written, policymakers should avoid the temptation of federal scorecards of any kind.

 A seductive idea, even among some critics of today’s accreditation system, is to have the federal government replace or supplement federally driven accreditation with a scorecard that seeks to measure the output of colleges by criteria such as graduation rates, employability of graduates, and value for money. Such federal intervention would be a mistake: Existing institutions that are comfortable within the cocoon of protectionist accreditation would lobby hard, and no doubt effectively, for output measures that define success in their own terms. Moreover, a competing range of such private outcomes-based scorecards already exists, sponsored by such bodies as U.S. News & World ReportForbes, ACTA, and Kiplinger’s.

 While the administration’s new scorecard appears to be of limited use to families, there are also questions about what such a scorecard will mean for the truly innovative – the Massive Open Online Courses and the forward thinking entities like the American Council on Education that are accrediting MOOC courses at Coursera, laying the foundation for a genuine shake-up of higher education. It likely means another barrier to their legitimacy. MOOC courses are not yet included in this new college scorecard sanctioned by the Obama administration. But if they are in the long run, what types of regulation will MOOCs incur in order to be included in this latest federal scheme?

 As we move toward a new higher education landscape – one that is defined by what students know, not the amount of hours spent at an institution – the administration aims to make information about the existing model more transparent. That’s hardly the type of reform that will ultimately bring down costs for families, particularly as they continue to subsidize higher education with increasing federal spending at the same time.

 A college scorecard might sound good on paper, but it’s one more input-based measure that misses the big picture: parents and students don’t need more information about how college costs are gouging them, leaving them with mounds of debt and little to show for it. They need the federal government to stop the higher ed spending spree, forcing colleges to actually think before they increase tuition and fees.

Posted by: Lindsey Burke

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