College Scorecard Adds Earnings Data to Help Students Make Better Decisions

On September 12, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released the much-anticipated College Scorecard, a data tool that allows prospective students and others to view and compare information about colleges and universities, guided by what information is most important to the user. In its accompanying policy paper, the Department clarifies the Scorecard’s intention to serve low-income and first-generation students. CLASP commends the Department’s strong commitment to these populations.  

The Scorecard was originally envisioned as an accountability system tying federal funds to colleges’ performance ratings. Its revised focus on transparency is the culmination of years of stakeholder input, including CLASP’s. We’re gratified that the Department heard our concerns about the potential for unintended consequences. As originally conceptualized, the Scorecard could have reduced access for low-income and under-prepared students by linking students’ outcomes to their schools’ eligibility to participate in federal student financial aid programs.

The Scorecard graphically highlights three key measures: net price, graduation rate, and median earnings ten years after enrollment. For each institution, more detailed information is available on cost, financial aid and debt, earnings after school, and demographics of the student body.  One important measure that is not included in the Scorecard (though it is available in the data released to researchers) is the graduation rate among Pell recipients. This would allow low-income people to identify schools where students with similar characteristics are more likely to graduate.

The Scorecard includes data about labor market outcomes, an important addition for which CLASP has long advocated. Earnings results can be critical to help students make good decisions about where to attend school and which program to enroll in. There are two serious limitations with current earnings data; however, both can be addressed in the future. First, earnings data are only available for students who had federal grants or loans. Second, earnings data are available only at the institution level, which is problematic because majors or programs of study can widely vary. CLASP applauds the Department for its announcement that earnings data at the program-of-study level are forthcoming. Since population sizes will be small for programs of study, we suggest combining five years of data into a pooled cohort for each program. In addition, we continue to support the larger effort to amend institutional reporting requirements so that data on all students can be included in the Scorecard information—not just those with Pell grants or federal loans.

For future versions of the Scorecard, CLASP recommends including appropriate caveats to help the user interpret earnings data. For instance, it should address expected variation in earnings in different regional labor markets, differences in institution mission, variation in program mix, and students’ interests and preparation. College Measures websites and other state-level consumer information websites have examples worth considering. This includes Arkansas, California, and Texas, which feature prominent disclaimers.