High School Students Critique Obama’s College Scorecard

The college information tool leaves students with a lot of questions, according to a new report.

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The draft College Scorecard leaves high school students with more questions than answers, a report finds.
The draft College Scorecard leaves high school students with more questions than answers, a report finds.

The Obama administration's proposed College Scorecard is all Greek to high school students, according to a report released Monday by the Center for American Progress, a nonprofit think tank.

Designed to help students compare colleges, the scorecard gives students an at-a-glance view of a school's vitals: cost, graduation rates, debt, and earnings potential.

But the success of the tool depends whether or not students use it, note the report's authors, Julie Margetta Morgan, the center's associate director of postsecondary education, and Gadi Dechter, managing director of economic policy at the center.

"The scorecard will only be useful if students understand it and find it relevant to their decisions," the duo writes. "The only way to know for sure if it fulfills its purpose is to ask students directly: Will you use this? Do you trust it? Is it easy to understand? What about it is helpful? What's not?"

To get answers to those questions, CAP asked four focus groups of high school juniors and seniors to weigh in on the proposed scorecard, as well as an alternative version created by the Center.

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While students liked having all of the information in one place, the scorecards didn't speak their language, the report states.

The term "net price"—commonly used by college and financial aid officials—didn't resonate with the high school students surveyed. "When we asked students what [net price] meant, students most often responded with blank looks or general comments such as 'it includes everything, altogether,'" the report states.

Even students who understood the term—which the College Scorecard refers to as "average total costs after grants and scholarships"—said the indicator held too many variables to be relevant.

"You have to add in your own family income. If you make $20,000 per year, this is way skewed," one student from the focus groups is quoted as saying.

Students also said it was unclear whether "total cost" on the scorecards included textbooks and living expenses, according to the report.

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Understanding the actual cost of a college—after scholarships and financial aid are factored in—can help students more accurately compare prospective schools. Roughly 60 percent of high school students from middle- and low-income families say they ruled out certain colleges based on sticker price alone, according to a September studentPOLL report. Nearly 1,500 high school seniors were surveyed for the report, a joint effort by the College Board and the Art & Science Group, an educational consulting firm.

The White House is expected to release a finalized version of its College Scorecard shortly. To make it useful for high school students, the Obama administration should revamp some of the language used and add links to tools such as the school's net price calculator to make the scorecard more customizable for students, the CAP report recommends. The government should also conduct further focus groups, including ones with parents and nontraditional students, according to the report.

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