College Scorecard Can Disrupt Higher Ed’s Prestige Economy

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One of the Obama administration’s goals was to rank every college and university — all 7,000-odd private and public institutions of higher education in the nation — by their comparative student debt and earning potential. College administrators nationwide opposed the initiative, fearing such a ranking system would favor institutions with robust STEM or vocational programs. The answer to the controversy was a compromise: On Saturday, the U.S. Department of Education revealed a website called College Scorecard, which consolidates average annual cost, graduation rate and salary post-graduation for each institution. No rankings are assigned; the scorecard is just an easy-to-navigate treasure trove of financial facts.

However, nestled in this cache is one metric that has the potential to change the way students think about the value of higher education. Each college’s scorecard includes the percentage of alumni who, six years after enrolling, earn more than the average high school graduate — about $25,000 per year. Think about it: Students now have the ability to estimate, at a glance, the likelihood of earning more money with a degree from a particular school than if they had never attended college in the first place. That idea is not only fascinating but also incredibly important.

The first contemporary marker of higher education’s prestige economy was the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, which began in 1983, but universities had lived and died by their reputations for decades earlier. Today, the logic goes that schools like Harvard University, Princeton University, Williams College and Amherst College are some of the best institutions in the country because of their strong academics, distinguished alumni and vast financial resources.

When examining earnings potential, as Obama’s scorecard does, there is some correlation with prestige. An impressive 88 percent of Harvard graduates earn more than the average high school graduate; 75 percent of Princeton graduates do the same, as do 87 percent of Stanford University graduates and MIT alumni. But the same cannot be said across the board. A typical East Coast liberal arts college yields a number somewhere in the vicinity of 66 percent. Oberlin? 52 percent.

We’ve known for awhile that prestige and monetary value don’t necessarily overlap in higher education — and in fact, they often don’t. However, Obama’s Scorecard is the first metric to not only disregard reputation but also present its users with a single, real number summarizing earnings potential. A data dump like the Scorecard’s represents a blow to a deeply entrenched way of thinking, one that can drive students to choose the more esteemed option over the more affordable one. While most of these statistics have been available in college guidebooks for years, College Scorecard is free and easy to navigate. For the first time, high school seniors have the opportunity to consider their financial well-being years into the future — and they may be more likely to alter their decisions as a result.

To be sure, metrics like this are compiled using dozens of factors, and they ignore a multitude of intangibles. It is reasonable to expect that a liberal arts college like Oberlin that educates students in a wide range of humanities and social science disciplines will have a lower mean earnings rating than a STEM-oriented research university like MIT. The Conservatory, whose graduates often go on to less lucrative careers in the arts and music education, likely lowers Oberlin’s score as well. And what about the high number of Oberlin graduates who go on to master’s and doctorate programs, service years abroad or career-oriented internships in their first year or two out of school? Their low net earnings undoubtedly lower the score even further.

It’s also foolish to assume that earnings potential is the only thing on a student’s mind when selecting a school. In Oberlin’s case, a large number of students might choose to land in northeast Ohio for other reasons, such as the College’s history of social justice work or its inclusive community. These are the elements monetary data will almost always fail to reflect.

On a broader scale, however, College Scorecard performs a vital function by reorienting the conversation surrounding higher education. Thorough financial information, some of which may be uncomfortably honest, empowers students to make more informed decisions about the cost of their education during and after their undergraduate years. If we’re ever going to chip away at the disproportionate influence prestige holds over public perception of colleges and universities — and perhaps even slow the runaway growth of tuition prices — this is a good place to start.

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