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Dr. Laura Perna Headshot

Why Obama's College Scorecard Falls Short

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Alamy
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The College Scorecard -- a recent White House effort to help Americans find the best value for their education dollars -- doesn't do enough to help the disturbing number of people for whom college continues to be unattainable.

The goal of the website is to shed light on the cost of college by reporting the average net price, rates of graduation, loan default rates, and even average loan repayment timeframes for colleges and universities around the country. But the data, removed from any context, do little to help people make smart decisions based on their unique financial and personal situations. For instance, how can a student reasonably interpret the monthly loan repayment amount without knowing more about the likelihood of employment and average salaries after graduation?

The Scorecard is an admirable attempt at transparency, but I don't see how it will help Americans -- particularly those who most lack complete and accurate information -- figure out how to pay for college or decide which college is best for them.

When it comes to college, money matters. Although college enrollment rates have increased over the past few decades for people of all income levels, gaps in college opportunity across groups remain incredibly large. The College Board's 2010 Education Pays report shows that college enrollment rates are still 25 percentage points higher for high school graduates in the top income quintile than for graduates from the lowest bracket.

I find it particularly worrisome that the opportunity gaps persist even though governments, schools, and organizations have invested substantially in student financial aid and other programs designed to promote college opportunity.

Access to accurate and reliable information about college costs and financial aid is especially important to students from low-income families and those who are the first in their families to attend college. These people often have no one in their circles with firsthand knowledge of college. High school counselors are typically unable to fill this gap because of the high student-to-counselor ratio at most schools (recently reported to have risen nationally to 457 students for every counselor) and the many other demands competing for counselors' time.

Ensuring that students and their families have the information they need to make informed decisions about the costs of attending college requires more than just another website.

If we as a nation are serious about making sure that everyone is able to enter and complete college, we need to invest in more trained college counselors to help people navigate the financial aid system as it applies to their unique situations. Such counselors can also help students make sense of the many other factors that are important in the college-selection process -- something that the Scorecard doesn't do.

Short of putting more counselors where they're needed most, at the very least we should make the Scorecard customizable. People considering college should be able to plug in their income and other information and get details about their financial aid eligibility, schooling options, and other feedback specific to their needs. It would also be better if the scorecard included information pertaining to college other than just these economic "value" indicators. Certainly college is important to economic prosperity, but other dimensions of the college experience are important as well.

As a researcher and professor who specializes in higher education, I applaud President's Obama's effort, but I give the College Scorecard a failing grade for its inability to help low-income Americans navigate one of the few remaining paths to realizing the American dream.