February 14, 2013

College Scorecard praised in concept, but with a few caveats

Launched by the White House, online tool aims to improve transparency for prospective students

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- An online college comparison tool launched this week by the White House to improve transparency about college affordability and outcomes is being praised in concept by people who work in and study education.

click image to enlarge

University of Maine at Augusta students stuff teddy bears Thursday at the student center as part of a Valentine's Day celebration. The White House has launched the College Scorecard, an online tool to review the expenses and graduation rates of colleges across the nation, including UMA.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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The federal government's new College Scorecard tool provides key data for every college and university. Here's a snapshot of some local colleges.

Colby College (Waterville)

Average net cost: $19,699 per year

Graduation rate: 92 percent

Median student debt: $18,000

Kaplan University (South Portland*)

Average net cost: $14,681 per year

Graduation rate: 18 percent

Median student debt: $15,834

Kennebec Valley Community College (Fairfield)

Average net cost: $7,833 per year

Graduation rate: 40 percent

Median student debt: $7,000

Thomas College (Waterville)

Average net cost: $18,158 per year

Graduation rate: 45 percent

Median student debt: $17,187

University of Maine at AugustaAverage net cost: $7,289 per year

Graduation rate: 16 percent

Median student debt: $10,084

University of Maine at Farmington

Average net cost: $13,210

Graduation rate: 59 percent

Median student debt: $17,942

*Data for the Kaplan University campus that opened last year in Augusta are unavailable.

However, some say the new College Scorecard has shortcomings and will be useful only if students and their parents understand what it means.

Gregory LaPointe, executive director of institutional research and planning at the University of Maine at Augusta, said he's concerned about the impression the scorecard could give prospective students about UMA. The university's average net cost and median borrowing are low, but so is the graduation rate: 16 percent.

That figure includes only first-time, full-time students, who are a small minority of the 6,900 students UMA enrolls in an academic year.

"That makes up a couple of hundred students that fit into that category," LaPointe said. "When someone's going to come to this page for our students, they're only getting that perspective."

Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst with the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation, said the scorecard is full of important information that should be disseminated widely.

"I think it's a good start," she said. "I think there's still more that they can do, and I still think the impact will be small unless we figure out a way to actively get it into students' hands."

Fishman said colleges and universities should be required to post the College Scorecard on their websites' homepages and send it to students who request information. Now it's only on the White House website, www.whitehouse.gov.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama said the scorecard would show students "where you can get the most bang for your educational buck."

The tool has a page for every higher-education institution that receives federal financial aid and includes five measures: average net cost after grants and scholarships, graduation rate, loan default rate, median borrowing and average earnings for graduates. There are visual gauges showing whether an institution's graduation rate, for instance, is low, medium or high compared to others that grant the same type of degree.

No information is available yet on the average earnings of graduates, and the scorecard advises prospective students to ask the college or university for more information about employment.

UMA students said they were already able to find the information they needed before enrolling, whether from the College Board or directly from UMA. Mariah Bustard, a 19-year-old liberal studies student from Waterville, said she looked up typical costs and borrowing for UMA and decided to enroll because it was inexpensive and close to home.

Bustard said the low graduation rate presented on the scorecard does not change her perception of UMA as a good school, but it could sway people less familiar with the university.

Jessie Chazin, a 33-year-old music student from Monmouth, said much of the scorecard seems either irrelevant to her -- such as other people's loan defaults -- or redundant, with information available elsewhere.

"I looked at the stats and I read about the college and I tried to figure out more," she said. "I hope other people would do that, too."

Dan Connolly, guidance counselor at Gardiner Area High School, said the scorecard seems like a valuable tool.

"The more we can get transparency in education in terms of cost, the better off we're all going to be in terms of students making good decisions," he said.

One thing not included in the College Scorecard is information about financial aid renewability. Connolly said that's important because some colleges don't tell students that the grants or scholarships they're offered will run out after the first or second year.

(Continued on page 2)

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