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New College Scorecard still has madness in its method

Greg Nash

On Nov. 20, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued results from a “groundbreaking redesign” of the department’s College Scorecard. The previous version, fashioned by the Obama administration, reported college student graduation rates and first-year median incomes for graduates on an institutional basis. DeVos’s new version breaks down income and student loan debt statistics by college major.  

It also reports data for all students, including transfers and part-time students, not just the first-time, full-time students that were the original study cohort for the department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The DeVos Scorecard also includes data from some 2,100 institutions that award non-degree certificates, including many for-profit career colleges.

Clearly, the new Scorecard is a major improvement on the previous version, providing more depth and transparency than before. The search tool even provides a link to the Department of Labor information on apprenticeships. DeVos calls the new report “a tool that provides real information students need to make informed, personalized decisions about their education.”     

Most media have followed up the Scorecard announcement with stories summarizing the main results. Not surprisingly, the focus of these reports is the generalization that STEM majors pay graduates better than liberal arts majors. The Economist insightfully notes that graduates of elite schools that admit fewer than one in four applicants make more than those from all other institutions. Both “merely good” schools and non-elite state universities and second-tier liberal arts colleges fare about the same.

It remains to be seen whether the Scorecard will be used as a pretext for legislation to limit choices, instead of serving its stated purpose of better informing students and their families.  Some progressive consumer advocates eschew the old caveat emptor philosophy in favor of social engineering. Like former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s famous ban on 32-ounce soft drinks, they would eliminate or limit federal student aid availability for those who choose college majors with low initial pay and higher amounts of debt. Some conservatives who favor reductions in federal spending might also support restrictions on student aid being used for programs lacking evidence of producing career-ready results.

The Scorecard still needs improvement to help tell the full story about academic outcomes. The biggest flaw is its continued focus on the income of graduates the first year after degree completion. More than any other factor, measurement of first-year income awards top prize to STEM majors time after time. As Harvard researchers David J. Deming and Kadeem L. Noray have found, by mid-career, liberal arts majors have caught up with science and engineering graduates. They note, “After about a decade, STEM majors start exiting their job fields as their skills are no longer the latest and greatest. In contrast, many humanities majors work their way to high-earning management positions.” 

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller defends the skills learned by English majors and other liberal arts graduates in his new book, “Narrative Economics.” Such graduates have highly developed critical-thinking and analysis skills in the narrative storylines that help people guide their way through complex personal and organizational relationships. 

A major improvement in the Scorecard would result if the Department of Education cooperated with the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics to report on earnings by job category five and 10 years out from graduation. Additional longitudinal research needs to be done on the complex nexus of relationships between employment and education over the course of various careers.  

Many individuals change careers throughout their working years, and millions of adults who graduated from high school or dropped out of college return later to finish up. How do these individuals differ in terms of salary and debt from traditional students who go to college right after high school? Emma Newcombe has reported on 10 careers not requiring a college degree in the “new collar” job market of middle-skilled employees who have rates of pay comparable to what college grads earn. Most of these jobs are in the burgeoning fields of information technology and health care. The Scorecard gives us no information on these individuals.

The Scorecard also lacks sufficient information on graduate and professional degree programs.   Anyone who uses the Scorecard’s search tool and tries to find a listing of graduate programs will be disappointed, though the department’s press release claims that “some” graduate programs were included. The only degree-level choices available in the filter column are certificates, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees. 

This needs to be repaired as soon as possible, for two reasons. First, many fields of employment require a graduate or professional degree. Statistics on law school applicants from 2016 and 2017 show that the top four undergraduate majors were  political science, psychology, English and history. Intuitively, one can see how the courses taken by students from these majors help aspiring lawyers, yet all these majors fare poorly on the Scorecard as it now is constructed. The second reason for including graduate and professional degrees is measuring the amount of debt incurred by students in postgraduate fields of study.  

Congress, the administration, and the general public should be cautioned not to make policy or personal life choices merely on the information contained in the Department of Education’s new Scorecard. There is still madness in the methodology and, like any statistical report, the Scorecard bears only passing resemblance to the choices made in the real world by students and their families. With mounting evidence that the internet generation — Generation Y — has widely adopted YouTube and smartphone apps as their new professors, we are entering a new age of autodidacts who get high-quality information and skills training at virtually no cost.

C. Ronald Kimberling, Ph.D., is a research fellow with the Independent Institute. He was the U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education during the Reagan administration. He holds a doctorate in English from the University of Southern California.

Tags Bachelor's degree Betsy DeVos College Scorecard Department of Education Higher education Michael Bloomberg

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