By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - After President Barack Obama announced last week the release of a "College Scorecard," there was a small explosion on Twitter and perhaps in the minds of college applicants deep in the weeds of school selection.
Isn't there enough of this already?
Jeff Solnet (@jfsolnet) February 13, 2013
Is this going to do anything better?
scorecards and shopping sheets. Noble ideas but you have to ensure you are comparing apples to apples and not apples to pomegranates #edsotu—
Eric Nichols (@enichols679) February 13, 2013
Is this scorecard even a good idea?
Hopefully the new college scorecard will focus on quality and affordability. #sotu2013—
Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) February 13, 2013
Michael Harris (@MichaelS_Harris) February 13, 2013
President Obama just destroyed the liberal arts education that built him with his higher-Ed report card. Why pull the ladder up behind you?—
Gary Stager, Ph.D. (@garystager) February 13, 2013
The College Scorecard is not the same as U.S. News and World Report, Kiplingers, Fiske or most other college rankings and guides out there. It's not going to say if a school is among the 10 best anything, whether the students are cute or brilliant, if the dorms are swanky or if a school's mascot would win in a wrestling match - if you even believe rankings can reflect that.
During the State of the Union address, Obama said the College Scorecard would show "where you can get the most bang for your educational buck." It's a nod toward how tough it is to find a school and figure out how to pay for it. Its creators say it was built to reveal value, to show whether a school is worth the money - if you even believe numbers can reflect that.
It pulls together data already sprinkled around government reports and individual schools’ websites. It answers questions like, how much do students and their families pay? How much do students borrow? After all that, do students actually get degrees, and jobs?
Go to whitehouse.gov/scorecard, and type in the name of a school. Or scout one by location, area of interest or type of college, like distance education, campus setting or size. Click to choose one, and what comes back are graphics that depict the average net price: an estimate of the average amount it actually costs to attend, minus scholarships and grants.
Consider Occidental College in Los Angeles, the college young Obama attended after graduating high school in Hawaii. The College Scorecard says it costs $27,846 per year on average, which puts Oxy in the high-cost range. Families of its 2,125 students typically borrow $18,020 in federal loans for an undergrad to attend, and the loan payment would be about $207.37 per month over 10 years. The scorecard also says that about 83.5% of full-time Oxy students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, and 12.8% transferred to another institution, like Obama, who went on to graduate from Columbia University in New York. There's a space on the scorecard to explain what types of jobs students get after graduation, but nothing is listed there. Sara Gast, a U.S. Department of Education press officer, said they expect to add the info within a year.
Any Oxy applicant is likely to notice the price. It's about $30,000 less than the price listed on Oxy’s website: $57,028 per year for tuition, room and board and fees. That "sticker price" could make potential students cross Oxy off the list immediately, even if they might qualify for tens of thousands in financial aid, even if the true, typical price is far lower. There's a sticker price, and then there's the price paid after deals are offered, negotiations attempted, loans approved and rewards claimed.
Occidental College spokesman Jim Tranquada said the scorecard’s numbers for Oxy are “in the ballpark" of what students pay, on average.
“The challenge that Occidental and every college faces is that people tend to look at the sticker price and make decisions … rather than asking a few more questions to find out what they’re more likely to actually pay,” he said.
So, are there any tools tracking thousands of colleges that do it better than the scorecard? Maybe.
With a little digging, would-be students can find net price calculators on schools' websites. Federal law requires schools to post them. The calculators ask applicants to share their financial info and should churn out a price pretty close to what they would pay for tuition, room and board, materials and fees. It's not an official offer, and it won't share graduation rates or instantly compare the results to other schools'. But it's something.
Not enough, the folks at College Abacus argue.
College Abacus is a free tool that brings schools' individual net price calculators into one place. Users create an account, enter their financial information once and then compare their personal net price estimates across schools. Abigail Seldin, College Abacus' chief executive officer and founder, said the individual estimate is better than the College Scorecard's average. An average net price means some students' costs will ultimately be much higher or much lower. It could easily discourage some low- and middle-income students, even though their estimate could be much lower, she said.
"We welcome additional federal regulations to increase transparency, but we see big problems with the use of an average net price for student advising," Seldin said. “It’s not a lot better than the sticker price."
College Abacus has collected data on about 3,000 schools. It expects to re-launch in September with more than 7,000 schools, including public, private, nonprofit, for-profit, community colleges and trade schools. It is working with high school counselors to help them match schools and students, and adding features for students to report back what they pay - a test of whether schools' net price calculators are accurate.
Like the College Scorecard, College Abacus isn't ranking schools, Seldin said. Rather, she thinks of College Abacus like Kayak, the one-stop site for travel prices.
“Students are learning about what it’s going to really cost for them to go to college as they decide to apply, rather than in the spring of their senior years after they’ve applied, been accepted, rejected,” Seldin said.
For families trying to make a college decision, it can't hurt, said Elizabeth Heaton, the senior director of education consulting for College Coach and a former college admissions officer. Some students and parents are influenced by rankings, Heaton said - lists she often finds shoddy or at least subjective. Some make decisions because a campus "feels right" or because of a family legacy. The College Scorecard comes closer to answering questions Heaton would prefer applicants ask, she said.
“The first thing is absolutely cost. Can you afford it?” Heaton said. She wants students to consider whether schools have the range of academic programs they want and how schools would fit into their families' lives. Do you need to live at home or carry a full-time job? Can the family cope with a few plane rides per year, or do you need to be within driving distance?
“It’s very hard to quantify a ‘good’ education, what makes one program better than another,” Heaton said. “The more resources that can help people understand what they should be looking for, how to evaluate, whether it makes sense for the student, the better.”