The Score Doesn’t Add Up

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Last week I began a discussion of the recent initiative from President Obama -- the College Scorecard. The Scorecard is part of the President’s goal to “equip Americans with the skills they need.” This initiative is described as follows:

“Holding colleges accountable for cost, value and quality: Today, the federal government provides more than $150 billion each year in direct loan and grant aid for America’s students. In an era of limited resources, we must allocate the federal investment in student aid wisely, in order to promote opportunity in higher education and ensure the best return on investment. The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.

A new College Scorecard to provide clear information about college: Last year, President Obama called for the development of a new College Scorecard to give students and families clear information about college costs and quality as they make decisions about higher education. The Administration is unveiling this interactive tool so that every student and family can gain information on individual colleges and universities – and compare them to similar institutions – as they conduct their college search.”

The Scorecard provides information on five key areas related to affordability and value: Costs, Graduation Rate, Loan Default Rate, Median Borrowing and Employment. While I fully support transparency in information and recognize these areas as important measures of success and value, I believe that the College Scorecard has some serious flaws.

First, we can start with the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) own disclaimer.  In describing the Scorecard, the DOE concludes with, “Note that the information included in the scorecard may not apply to all students.”  What makes this even more confusing is that it doesn’t tell us for which students it does apply.

College students are one of the most diverse groups in America. Colleges and universities are also incredibly diverse in mission, scope, focus, etc. A single Scorecard intended to be of value to all prospective students comparing all colleges and universities is limited at best and likely more confusing than clarifying.

Second, the five criteria on the Scorecard are not easily understood by many prospective students and families. For example, cost is provided as "the average net price.”  Many educators who work with college-bound students and families are concerned that this will be seen as a synonym for tuition and fees.  A statistic like “loan default rate” is also not easily understood by many users of the Scorecard.  In fact, each of the five criteria has been assessed as potentially confusing and incomplete.

These first two concerns can be fixed. Data can be organized by type of student and type of institution. Statistics can be clarified and more clearly defined. But my major concern is the total absence of a “scorecard” on quality education. While data on “employment” (yet to be published) will be helpful, this entire process ignores the central value of educational quality. And even if an institution has a high employment rate, how will a prospective student know if the graduate found the desired job and was well educated for both a professional career and for life?

Lots of restaurants advertise “a value meal.”  But value doesn’t necessarily mean a good meal, a healthy meal, a memorable meal.  Affordability in education is an important issue.  But the quality of the educational experience is also important.  It may be harder to “score” quality, but it’s worth trying!

 

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Thursday, 17 April 2014