The College Scorecard Misses the Real Value of College
Criticism of the White House’s College Scorecard has emerged steadily in the weeks since the release of the tool. The Scorecard offers primarily financial information, such as the average cost of a college after grants and loans and the average salary of graduates. It addresses a limited set of measures, but even so its data is deeply flawed, many critics say. Graduate salaries, for example, are calculated from a very limited group of students, and are based on their earnings ten years after starting college (a curious measure given the increasing proportion of part-time students). And as The Economist notes, using institutional averages makes it almost inevitable that institutions that focus primarily on engineering will appear to be “the best.” But methodology aside, the biggest problem, as AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider points out in a letter to the New York Times, is that “the College Scorecard provides no information about either the quality of college learning or the role of higher education in building capacities we need in a free and democratic society.”
The Scorecard’s message, Schneider says, is that students “should seek out institutions that seem to promise the highest salaries, with no questions asked about the rigor, breadth, creativity or global reach of the actual curriculum.” A policy brief released by the White House in tandem with the scorecard does note that “students’ outcomes tied to learning—what a student knows and can do—is an important way to understand the results and quality of any educational experience.” Nevertheless, the Scorecard contains no information on learning outcomes because, the authors say, “no data sources exist that provide consistent, measurable descriptions across all schools or disciplines of the extent to which students are learning.” But as Schneider notes in her letter, this simply isn’t true. The Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment, a joint initiative of AAC&U and the State Higher Education Officers Association, has produced preliminary data on the writing, critical thinking, and quantitative literacy skills of students from fifty-nine institutions in nine different states.
Any assessment of colleges and universities that ignores student learning misses the fundamental point of education. When President Obama proposed the creation of a college ratings system in 2013, AAC&U’s Board of Directors wrote that “the true ‘value’ of college is ultimately about learning and the difference a good education makes in many aspects of our graduates' lives—in their long-term success in a changing economy, in their civic participation, and in their personal development and individual flourishing.” Or as Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, writes: “Students need an education that will help them earn a living, but they also wish for a fulfilling life, one that goes beyond any economic measure.”