How to Use Obama's College Scorecard

The new tool is a good starting point to weigh college options, but lacks context, experts say.

The president's College Scorecard could be a useful tool for students trying to choose a college.
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President Obama wasted no time fulfilling one of the promises made in last night's State of the Union address, releasing the administration's new College Scorecard earlier today.

The interactive tool, designed to help parents and prospective students determine which college will give them "the most bang for their education buck," shows consumers how a school stacks up in terms of cost, graduation rates, student loan default rates, and median borrowing.

[Find out which school's graduates have the least debt.]

One of several college-choice websites offered via the Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center—which houses the government's College Navigator and Net Price Calculator Center—the scorecard should be used in tandem with other resources, says Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

"[It] may be a starting point, but certainly shouldn't be the end point," Draeger says. "You can go in; you can get some very basic information, recognizing that the data being used to populate the scorecard is federal data, which isn't comprehensive."

Noticeably absent from that data: employment rates and average earnings for graduates, as noted by Amy Laitinen, a former education policy advisor at the Department of Education and White House.

The mere inclusion of an employment section—which the administration hopes to update with data in the future—is a step in the right direction, notes Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.

[Tweet us your thoughts on the College Scorecard.]

"By putting an employment section on the Scorecard, the Department is sending strong messages to institutions, students, families, and taxpayers that employment data is necessary to understand the outcomes of our institutions of higher education," Fishman writes in a recent blog post.

Students should dig through other resources—including the U.S. News college directory, an institution's website, and, eventually, the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet—and fill out the FAFSA in order to get a better picture of which school is going to be the best fit, says NASFAA's Draeger.

[Discover which majors offer the best return on investment.]

Additional research will be especially important for so-called nontraditional students, ages 25 and older, who account for roughly 50 percent of college enrollment, Draeger says, adding that the scorecard focuses on traditional, dependent students.

"This is giving you a snapshot based on very basic federal data," he says. "It's incumbent on the student then to follow up … asking the school directly … 'How is a student like me reflected in this data?'"

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.