House of cards

A new initiative by the Obama administration should implement a think tank’s suggested changes

When President Barack Obama’s administration announced the “college scorecard” in February, the initiative was lauded as a crucial first step in giving students better information about colleges. The scorecard — which is still in the planning stages — aims to be a one-page fact sheet displaying statistical data. Each card will assess the average cost, the graduation rate, the average loan and rate of loan repayment, in addition to the potential earnings that graduates obtain by at U.S. institutions. Then, each college would have its own scorecard that students could examine online. The Center for American Progress, however, has released a new study, “Improving the College Scorecard: Using Student Feedback to Create an Effective Disclosure,” that polled focus groups to describe how the scorecard still needs improvement. The government would be well-advised to take the center’s recommendations before unveiling its project.

The Obama administration’s goal in designing the scorecard was to provide students something that was clear and straightforward. Given that there is so much information about colleges, the president hoped that students could examine all the relevant facts in one useful location. But critics say the cards are confusing in their simplicity.

According to the report, the main problem students had with the scorecard was confusion about its purpose. Many of the students were not immediately certain what the scorecard was, exactly. The government logos only added to students’ frustration, rather than making the cards look official. The study thus first recommends that each card offer information about the scorecard initiative itself.

Each card presents five rows of information about the college in question. The study argues that the metrics used need improvement. For instance, the scorecards present information about the six-year graduation rate of each institution, to the distress of many students who are concerned only about the four-year graduation rate. The report thus suggests that the four-year graduation rate also be tabulated.

Next, the report criticizes the scorecards for not explaining the matter of price. Currently, each scorecard shows the “net price” of each institution — a term unfamiliar to some. Net price is the cost of tuition for students after accounting for aid. Moreover, the cards mention nothing whatsoever about financial aid possibility or the cost of living expenses.

Lastly, the report found that students wanted more customization. Rather than just list the average tuition or average earning of graduates, the scorecards would better equip students if they had specifics according to major.

On the whole, the scorecard project could largely prove a success. Still, though, it is important the government finalize design changes now before the cards are put into practice — if they keep making adjustments after the cards are created, it could prove detrimental. The White House nevertheless deserves credit for making the scorecard template public, so groups like the center could suggest a host of improvements. Its recommendations should be implemented before the project is finished.

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