Good & Bad of the College Scorecard

Instead of playing Candy Crush or searching for cat videos on YouTube, I have my own frivolous and fun online activities that fit better with my quirks and curiosities. It is browsing the College Scorecard database. For readers who don’t know, this is a database of US colleges and Universities that participate in US federal financial aid programs. You can search by programs, location, size, public or private, distinct mission, or even religious affiliation. When you find a school of interest, this scorecard cuts to what some must consider the most important data points about higher education institutions.

  • How much does it cost to attend?
  • What percentage of students who attend that school actually graduate?
  • What sort of debt do they have when they graduate, and how much money do graduates of that school make?
  • You can also learn a bit about the student demographic and how entering students performed on tests like the ACT or SAT.

As I tell people often, I once took a personality inventory that categorizes people as one of four animals, each with a distinct set of personality characteristics. I was exactly divided between two. I was the otter, which was once described as a “party waiting to happen.” I was also described as a beaver, which a person explained to me as someone who might enjoy reading the dictionary, a description that I favored because one of my all-time favorite Christmas presents was a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. As such, I have concluded that I am a party waiting to happen…just expect that we will be reading or discussing the dictionary at my party. Or, perhaps we will be musing about the affordances and limitations of the US College Scorecard database.

What I like about the Oxford English Dictionary is that it does more than give common use definitions of a word. It gives us a glimpse into its history and etymology. It provides hints about how the word evolved and the discourses around it. It is a launchpad for hours of thinking about meaning, shared meaning, and changing meaning. How about the college scorecard? At first glance, I was a critic of its simple representation of schools. I continue to critique how people, if they are not thoughtful and careful, can easily misuse this database and come to flawed conclusions. At the same time, I must confess that it makes for a tremendous discussion starter. In other words, I don’t know if its primary goal as a sort of consumer information source is its greatest affordance. It seems to be better at provoking important conversations about higher education.

Consider this question. If you were a consultant, advising higher education institutions how to “score well” for the scorecard, what would you recommend? Browsing the database and studying the schools that fare well, it would seem like you could simply suggest two main adjustments.

College Scorecard Tip #1 – Don’t Accept Certain People

Only accepted highly qualified and college ready students. Do not invest in promising students with less than exemplary academic records or with complex and at-risk family and other social circumstances. If people are having to work long hours at one or more jobs while going to school, studying part-time while balancing family and other responsibilities, or working through personal challenges; it is probably better to disregard those people, because they will decrease your graduation and retention rates.

College Scorecard Tip #2 – Only Offer Degrees That Lead to High Early Salaries

Yes, social workers, ministers and teachers are nice and helpful people perhaps; but they don’t make enough money. If you focus on those programs, then your statistics about the salaries of graduates might decline. Instead focus on those majors that are tied to high salary jobs after graduation. When in doubt, STEM fields are always a good option. Also beware of any majors that don’t have a clear career path. That is just too risky for the college scorecard unless you are an élite school and the networks that students build will assure them a good early salary in a job.

Wait a Second

Of course, I’m not really suggesting that all Universities use this recipe. This is the danger of scorecards, grading and rating. If it is an influential and well-known enough source, it will start to influence the behavior and decisions of people and organizations, and it might influence them in negative or unexpected ways. The student starts doing whatever it takes to get an “A” instead of doing whatever it take to learn as much as possible or to just be a great learner. Or, the college/University starts changing its mission or what it can easily change to get a better scorecard. If you have adult education programs serving people from disadvantaged backgrounds and it doesn’t make you much money, just cut those programs and your scorecard improves instantly. Some higher education institutions have a mission of serving and educating those who don’t have the highest ACT or SAT scores, enter with lower high school GPAs, and might have some risk factors for not retaining or graduating. Perhaps we want to make sure that we don’t build a system that deters this or evaluate people on too simple of a data source.


At the same time, if we are willing to use this database for deeper and more substantive discussions, it can serve us well. How do we balance the cost of higher education with the amount of debt that some are experiencing? If a person has indicators that make her a higher risk for not graduating or defaulting on a loan, maybe it is wise to suggest options for education that keep the cost to a minimum. Or, maybe that person is wise to look at colleges with a track record of helping a high percentage of students with such a background persist and graduate on time. If a student aspires to a career that tends to have a lower salary, how can we provide college experiences or alternative learning pathways that do not produce as much debt? What would it look like to tie tuition to the average salary over the first five years of a graduate in a given major? These are powerful and provocative questions about important topics in the higher education landscape. There is and should be heated debate about answers and responses, but the scorecard can help spark some of that debate.

Also, if we take the time to consider multiple factors, the college scorecard can give us important information. Some colleges that accept a broader range of students are retaining students very well, charging less tuition, and resulting in jobs that provide a solid and living wage. Other colleges serving a similar demographic and offering a similar set of degree programs are not doing nearly as well. In other words, when we use the scorecard and put comparable institutions next to one another, we do get what many would consider helpful consumer information.

The College Scorecard isn’t perfect. It can mislead and people and misuse it. It also has a real and important risk of narrowly looking at higher education through an economic lens. At the same time, it is a great source of information that we can use to provoke discussion, to drive us deeper into complex issues, and it has some “consumer” value as well.