College Scorecard Helps Students Pick Schools

College-bound students can now use the U.S. Department of Education's revamped College Scorecard website to compare school options.

Finding the right college got a lot easier earlier this month when the U.S. Department of Education published its revamped College Scorecard with comprehensive information on more than 7,000 schools that offer two-year and four-year degrees.

The web-based scorecard offers a wealth of information about the colleges and universities, including tuition rates, graduation and retention rates, fields of study, percentage of students getting financial aid and the annual family contribution for the lowest-income students—to name just a few categories. The information is available at no charge.

The scorecard is the result of President Barack Obama’s effort, announced in 2013, to rate U.S. colleges and universities as “high performing,” “low performing” or “in the middle” so students and families could figure out whether they would be getting their money’s worth in an endeavor that often represents a significant investment of the family’s resources. A major concern was identifying private for-profit institutions that do not provide adequate instruction and leave students in the lurch with no degree, or a useless degree, and huge debt.

RELATED: Federal Government to Rate Tribal Colleges

The proposal met with opposition from some colleges and some in Congress, who believed the plan represented “federal overreach.” The College Scorecard is a compromise; it presents information to help students make their own evaluations of what colleges and universities would best serve their needs.

“Find Schools” is the first tool on the scorecard website. Here prospective students can specify any or all of the following criteria: degrees; programs; location by state, region, or zip code; the size of the undergraduate student body; type of school (public, private non-profit, private for-profit); specialized mission and/or religious affiliation. Hit the “find schools” button and the program returns the names of the schools that meet those criteria.

If, on the other hand, the student has in mind a number of schools and wants to compare them, on the same page there is a search field for the name of the school. The program returns information on location, number of undergraduates, average annual cost, graduation rate and the salary a student can expect to make after attending the school, with the latter three graphed against the national averages for those categories.

Another click reveals more facts that can be useful in deciding whether a college will likely meet a particular student’s needs, including average annual cost for families at different income levels, the percentage of students receiving federal loans and what percentage of those students are able to repay the loans, the race/ethnicity of the undergraduate student body, the average SAT and ACT scores of students admitted and much more.

The scorecard offers information on how to pay for college and a calculator to give a rough estimate of how much it would cost a specific student to attend.

Cindy Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College and chair of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s board of directors, says she’s been on the website already and found some technical glitches. But her main concern is that the information about tribal colleges needs to include some context. For example, graduation rates for TCUs are relatively low compared with other schools.

Lindquist says, “Supposedly we have the opportunity to go in and add a context or a narrative so people understand who we are and how different we are. [Otherwise] the data can be seriously misconstrued.”

She says she wants people to know that graduation rates might be low, “except if we weren’t here we would not have those 37 graduates. They would not have gone to college. They would not be completing that higher education. That is the context of what we do in our communities.” Tribal colleges, while they meet the same accreditation standards as any institutions of higher education, also serve their communities in myriad other ways, she says.

This story was originally published September 29, 2015.