Government’s college scorecard misleads students

In mid-September, the Department of Education released their government scorecard of America’s higher learning institutions. Prior to the release, President Obama promised the American people that it would contain “reliable data on every institution of higher education.” But the scorecard fails on both counts.

Despite the president’s promise, the scorecard fails to provide reliable data, nor does it include every institution of higher learning. Parents and students attracted by the scorecard’s ease of use and accessibility could easily be blindsided by the incomplete and skewed information it provides.

{mosads}The first fatal flaw of the scorecard is its dependence upon incomplete and mismatched data. Unlike private rankings and scorecards which try to present that most holistic data possible, much of the government statistics are based exclusively on data received through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). At first glance, it must be pointed out that the data tends to be focused on students are more economically disadvantaged than their peers and leaves out a large and important part of college student data.

An example of why this is ineffective is the government post-graduation success rate based upon earnings based on the FASFA. But this only reflects the achievements of students who received federal financial aid and provided accurate IRS filings. Parents or students could easily assume this is representative of all students and post-graduate earnings.

It’s not hard to imagine why some experts are wringing their hands over such an unprofessional repurposing and extrapolation of data. By making a specific population of students—in this case those supported by government grants and loans—representative of the whole, it significantly skews the statistics by either understating or overstating the actual median earnings of a college’s former students. The data that the government is using to measure the success of college was not designed for a scorecard nor does it provide accurate data to consumers of higher education.

Basing the scorecard on FASFA and student loan statistics is also a mistake, because it isn’t comprehensive. For example, the data that the government uses for graduation rates comes from National Student Loan Database System (NSLDS). But the NSLDS was designed to keep track of student loans rather than to monitor the graduation rates of Pell recipients. So a student who receives a Pell grant, but without other federal assistance, would likely be overlooked. This means basing graduation rates on the statistics available on federally financed students is far from accurate.

In other words, the “reliable data” that the president promised is misleading parents and students in an important life decision.

The second fatal flaw is that the scorecard doesn’t include every institution of higher education. It only includes colleges and universities that take federal student loans. A handful of colleges decided to remain institutionally independent, in the wake of the Supreme Court case Grove City College V. Bell—a case that determined that schools  that receive federal funding would be subject to all present and future government regulations.

These institutions that choose independence from government funds and regulatory interference, are not merely left unranked by the scorecard, they are not even acknowledged as an option for students and families at all.

These institutions have repeatedly requested that the Department of Education comply with the president’s promise—of ranking “every institution of higher learning.” But they continue to be ignored.

Even when respected institutions like Grove City College and Hillsdale College voluntarily submitted data for the scorecard, they were given the cold shoulder by the Department of Education.

Nearly two months have passed without the Department of Education rectifying this issue, or even clarifying on its site that its data only includes government funded schools. Clearly, the scorecard has become a mechanism of political posturing, rather than a desire to help students and families make the best decision.

The president’s promise has fallen woefully short of providing “reliable data on every institution.” Rather than creating accurate tool to help families find the best institution of higher learning, the Department of Education has clouded transparency in higher education by failing admit the flaws and limitations of the administrations scorecard.

Alford is a Young Voices Advocate, and a graduate student at George Mason University.


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