CHICAGO President Barack Obama's administration has unveiled a new online tool aimed at giving prospective college students a better idea of what individual colleges will cost and whether the financial burden will be worth it.
The "College Scorecard" comes as student debt is at an all-time high, graduates are entering a tough job market, and families are over-whelmed with confusing and sometimes hard-to-find information about costs.
Obama, during his State of the Union address last week, said families could use the website to figure out "where you can get the most bang for your educational buck," though some experts criticized the data the administration chose to use.
The site allows consumers to get bare bones information on 2- and 4-year colleges and universities, including tuition costs, graduation rates and graduates' average loan repayment per month. The goal is to eventually include data on graduates' employment and earnings, part of a push to make colleges more transparent about, and accountable for, student success.
"We know students and families are often overwhelmed in the college search process but feel they lack the tools to sort through the information and decide which school is right for them," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "The College Scorecard provides a snapshot about an institution's cost and value to help families make smart decisions about where to enroll."
Students can search for a specific institution or by factors such as location, size or majors offered. Some of the information is re-purposed from previous Education Department initiatives, such as the College Navigator website that provides much of the same data.
The latest effort focuses more on helping students decide whether a particular school will be worth their investment by highlighting financial data, including how much the average student borrower has to repay each month after they graduate and how that compares to other institutions.
For example, the site provides the following information about students at Western Washington University: The average net tuition price, after grants and scholarships, is $13,086 a year, which is just below medium range.
The university is in the high end for graduation, with about 72.9 percent of students graduating in six years.
For students who relied on federal loans to help pay for WWU, about 2.7 percent of them defaulted within three years of entering re-payment, much lower than the national default average of 13.4 percent. The average borrower pays back about $214 a month for 10 years.
Consumers can see how the costs and default rates compare to other colleges and universities. The default rate is a way to judge whether graduates are earning enough to be able to pay off their loans.
If students compare WWU's average loan default rate to those at other colleges, for example, they would learn it is about 3.1 percent at University of Washington, 5.7 percent at Washington State University, 4.6 percent at Central Washington University and 4 percent at Gonzaga University.
Vice president of Illinois' Augustana College, W. Kent Barnds, criticized the "one-size-fits-all" approach. He also said it emphasizes fu-ture earning potential instead of student learning. At $21,840, Augustana's net tuition price ranks on the high end, according to the score-card. The typical amount that graduates have to repay in loans each month about $287 also ranks high.
Augustana, a liberal arts school in Rock Island, has about 2,500 undergraduates. "Access to a great education cannot and should not be defined only through the language of dollars," Barnds said. "There is much more to consider when measuring the worth of a college education and degree."
Barnds said evaluating colleges based on its graduates' earnings will reward institutions that graduate large numbers of future engi-neers and corporate executives but not necessarily those who graduate large numbers of teachers.
The nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success, which has called for more transparency in higher education, applauded the latest effort but criticized the site, saying some of the data is "downright misleading."
The loan default rates, for example, do not include the context of how many students at a college borrow. And the data on the amount a college's borrowers end up repaying does not distinguish between students who complete a degree and those who dropped out after a few semesters. This could make a college with a high dropout rate look like a good deal when, in reality, its students are paying off debt accumulated in a short period of time.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said the website is poten-tially useful, but not a "game changer" since students make decisions about college for myriad reasons.
"There is certainly nothing wrong with what the administration is trying to do," he said, "but I don't think it fundamentally changes the decision-making of very many people."
CHECK THE SCORECARD
The scorecard is online at this whitehouse.gov webpage. You can look up a specific college or search by various factors including degrees offered, size, region or campus setting.
Bellingham Herald reporter Zoe Fraley contributed to this story.