Washington Watch: College Scorecard revisions have promise, limitations

The Education Education’s (ED) recently revamped College Scorecard has a new appearance and functionality that includes a variety of program-level data in addition to institutional information.

Since most students — particularly community college students — attend institutions within 50 miles of their homes (and list only one college on their federal student aid application), their choice of program is in some respects a more significant decision than the college they attend. So, as a consumer-focused comparison tool, the programmatic information in the Scorecard is especially important.

ED touts the new Scorecard as allowing students to “make apples-to-apples comparisons by providing the same data about all of the programs a student might be considering without regard to the type of school. For the first time, students will have access to the median earnings and median debt of a school’s graduates, based on their chosen field of study. That means, for example, a student interested in studying engineering can now compare outcomes, such as first-year earnings and student loan debt, among engineering programs within an institution and among those offered at other schools.”

Related article: College Scorecard adds program-level debt, earnings data

There is much to like about the revised Scorecard. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has long advocated for the collection and publication of program-level earnings data, as provided to some extent in the new Scorecard. (AACC also has advocated for a national unit record data system to generate these data, an approach incorporated in the College Affordability Act (H.R. 4674), the House Democrats’ legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA).

Scorecard has data limitations

The revised Scorecard also has significant limitations. For starters, fewer than one-fifth of all programs show debt or earnings information. This is because the small numbers of students reported for many programs preclude their data being used for privacy reasons. (This is the same situation that existed for gainful employment reporting, when those regulations were in effect.)

The reason why so few students are included is that ED uses only Title IV aid recipients for the Scorecard. Because the current HEA prohibits a unit record data system, the department can use only information it already collects — in this case, for the federal aid programs.  Slightly more than 40 percent of all community college students receive federal aid.

Another limitation of the Scorecard is that it provides median earnings information based on program graduates in their first year in the workforce. For many programs, this does not reflect potential future earnings. However, with each successive year of the College Scorecard, ED intends to provide a longer window of earnings information. This will greatly enhance the Scorecard’s utility.

Finally, although the Scorecard provides debt and earnings information, different cohorts are used, and so the debt-to-earnings calculation that was central to the gainful employment regulations cannot be accurately calculated from the Scorecard information.

Program definition is key

Students think in terms of selecting a major, but the Scorecard information is provided for a program of study, which is not synonymous. Specifically, the Scorecard uses the four-digit classification of institutional programs (CIP) to define program of study, whereas the major is at the more granular six-digit CIP. The differences can be substantial.

The difference between a four- and six-digit CIP in earnings depending on the area, for example, can be substantial. Using the four-digit CIP for Teacher Education and Professional Development to aggregate information on earnings would fold in very disparate categories, ranging from early childhood and kindergarten teachers ($29,780) to teachers of adult and continuing education ($53,630), and secondary school education ($60,320).

Limitations notwithstanding, AACC applauds ED’s Scorecard improvements, as well as the department working with third parties to make the information even more consumer-friendly. Under Secretary Diane Auer Jones has been particularly active in this area.

For its part, AACC will continue its work to make statutory changes to HEA in order to permit ED to collect and present more accurate and representative community college outcomes data.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.