According to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, sweeping changes are afoot in higher education. Amidst changes to preschool and secondary education, the president announced that he wants to:
- Bolster high school technical education programs. The president cited institutions such as P-Tech High School -- a school in New York City where every student graduates in six years with a high school diploma and associate degree -- as a way to provide students with real-world skills, should they not choose a four-year degree path.
- Dole out certain types of federal financial aid funding according to a school's "affordability and value," though it's unclear how those metrics would be determined.
- Make it easier for families to compare institutions to ensure that they're getting "the most bang for your educational buck."
While the first three points will take time to get going, the White House debuted a College Scorecard tool earlier Wednesday that helps students compare two- and four-year institutions. For families looking to get the real skinny on what college truly costs and how well grads are able to pay back their student loans, College Scorecard provides an easy-to-read summary of each school's size, net cost, student loan default rate, graduation rate and transfer rates for full-time undergrads, and the median amount students borrow at that school. The tool even provides an estimate of how much monthly loan payments would be for the average student and links to each school's net price calculator so families can get a more accurate estimate of what they'll actually pay according to their income and assets. While not running yet, College Scorecard is eventually supposed to provide data on average earnings for graduates.
The real beauty of College Scorecard is that it helps students find affordable schools that fit their needs. The site's search function allows students to input specific criteria they want, such as college size, location, campus setting, future occupation or major of interest, and get a list of institutions that match. If, for example, you're looking for institutions that offer undergrad degrees that could lead to a job as an accountant or auditor, but you want to take all of your classes online, College Scorecard provides a list of possibilities you can click through and compare.
While College Scorecard is a good start, it doesn't provide everything that students need to know. The site only provides net price information for in-state students and doesn't offer any data on housing or room and board costs. College Scorecard also only provides the average net price students pay, but this can vary dramatically depending on your family's financial situation. At Harvard University, for example, the average net price is $18,277 per year, but families earning $75,000 or less only pay about a quarter of that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator site, which breaks down net price data according to income bracket.
Families may also be confused by College Scorecard's graduation rates. The site provides information on how many full-time seeking students graduate within six years of entering schools (two years for community college students), but doesn't offer information on four-year graduation rates. This is also available over at NCES' College Navigator, along with data on each school's campus crime statistics, athletic teams, admissions averages and a breakdown of what the student body looks like.
Even so, College Scorecard deserves a lot of credit. It provides a wealth of information that typically isn't available on college websites and is one of the few tools that really helps families find schools with low debt and high graduation. As more tools like this emerge, it will hopefully become easier to look past terrifying sticker prices and see what higher education is really going to cost you.
What do you think of the idea?