Last week the US Department of Education unveiled the College Scorecard, an interactive tool designed to help families compare the affordability and value of one college against another. Some look at the move, first introduced in President Obama’s State of the Union address, as a positive step towards college finance transparency. Others see this device as well intended, but too limited in scope to actually help families make informed choices about college cost. Here’s what experts on College Coach’s Admission and Finance Teams have to say:
Sally Ganga: What strikes me as being most useful about the Scorecard is the ability of students and parents to quickly search and find information that is generally buried deep within a college’s website. For students to quickly ascertain not just the average cost of college but average loan rate and, perhaps most importantly, the average default rate, allows the student to look past the overall price. The default rate in particular should help students facing high loan levels to get a sense of whether this degree will assist them in getting the kind of job necessary to pay those loans back. My hope is that the information on the scorecard will allow middle and lower-income students to be savvier about the choices they make, and more aware of how tough it might be to repay student loans from one college versus another.
Becky Leichtling: Being well-informed is a vital part of choosing a college, and the College Scorecard provides a valuable place for centralized, dependable data. However, whenever something as complex as the value of a college degree is boiled down to averages, I hope the consumer is savvy enough to consider what that means for her as an individual. Average Net Price and Median Borrowing suggest more about the collected financial states and choices of all current students at a particular college, than they do about what your student will pay or borrow. Average Earnings may penalize colleges that send high numbers of graduates to medical school and law school, though that negative income actually speaks well of graduate success. And the Scorecard does not at all take into account academic preparation, the strength of the alumni network and career services, or the satisfaction/quality of life of the student body; factors that make college an investment in the first place. The Scorecard is a great place to collect a baseline of data, but remember that your child is not “average,” and this information does not reflect his personal circumstances or preferences.
Meredith Herrera: Giving families a reliable ‘one stop shop’ tool that enables them to evaluate the true cost of a college shifts the power dynamic back to the consumer. Hopefully, when added to the toolkit more broadly, this device will arm families with the knowledge they need to make more informed decisions. Also, from an admission perspective, this move underscores a maxim we former admission folks say all the time – don’t put your eggs in one basket. In the same way that it is not usually wise to apply to all reach schools, so too should families consider applying to schools that offer a range of financial options. Diversifying a list, both from a selectivity and finance standpoint, gives students the best possible options in the admission process.
Robert Weinerman: This is going to be a useful tool for students and families, as long as they understand what it is telling them. It’s telling them what the proverbial “average” student will pay after grants are applied. When I was an aid officer at MIT, people were always stunned when they received less than the average grant, even when they were clearly quite above average economically. As long as people are realistic about their relative economic positions, they may benefit from this tool.
Robyn Stewart: I am all for helping families and believe that the scorecard has a lot of good information that families can use – net price, graduation rate, loan default rate, median borrowing – in one place. It is early days yet, but I am wondering how this new tool can effectively and accurately capture the many ways in which someone could measure the ‘quality‘ of an education. The information is helpful, yet limited.
Beth Feinberg Keenan: I like that there is a way for families to look at colleges on a level playing field, but there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration when determining if the college is a good value or, better yet, a good fit for the student. Colleges have different resources that they can offer in terms of grant and scholarship dollars and colleges with larger endowments can appear to be more affordable to students; however it does not take into consideration if the student can get into that particular institution. Another interesting feature is the increase and decrease in the average net price. This piece can be a good indicator of what to expect in the future when your kids are attending college or how steady costs will remain once enrolled.
Most tools provide cumulative loan debt and I like that the scorecard provides the average monthly loan payment per year. Federal tools like the scorecard only include federal loan debt, however, and this amount can be deceiving since some students may also have to take out private loans to cover college costs or their parents may be borrowing through the Direct Parent PLUS Loan program. These additional loans can drive up monthly loan payments to numbers that exceed the figures that are reported.
Also, many students consider public institutions that are not in the state they reside in. The costs that are reported on the federal scorecard appear to be for students who are residents of that state. This tool is not very helpful when looking at the net cost of out-of-state public colleges.
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