The New College Scorecard: NPR Does Some Math

Sep 21, 2015
Originally published on September 22, 2015 11:46 pm

The Obama Administration's long awaited, and slightly-different-than-planned College Scorecard is open ... for interpretation.

The new tool combines data from the Treasury and IRS with Department of Education records on more than 7,000 colleges and universities, going back 18 years. Anyone can access the data that shows how particular colleges are doing at enabling students to pay back loans and pay their bills.

Anyone, including our colleagues over at NPR's Planet Money team.

Planet Money used the data to create its own rankings of four-year programs, something the Department of Education carefully avoided doing.

They reached out to three different higher ed experts — Peter Cappelli, a professor at UPenn's Wharton Business School, Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, and Amy Laitinen at the New America Foundation. They asked these experts how they'd weight the various pieces of information available, and came up with three different top-50 lists.

Together, these rankings show just how complex this process is.

For example, if you focus just on income later in life, you'll see Babson College, a private school in Wellesley, Mass., that exclusively offers business and entrepreneurship programs, in the No. 5 spot. Engineering schools — Harvey Mudd in California and Georgia Institute of Technology — make strong showings as well.

If you include default rates on student loans, Duke fares better than Harvard. But that measure may be misleading, because far more students borrow at Duke. The 3 percent of students who take out federal loans at Harvard may have other severe financial challenges.

Then again, if you are interested in how colleges serve low-income and first-generation students, suddenly the top spots are full of public institutions, especially in California.

Two years ago, when the White House announced this project, it sounded more like the administration was developing rankings like these. The project was described as a Consumer Reports-style ratings system for postsecondary institutions. There was even speculation that the system might have teeth in it — by being linked to eligibility for federal aid, for example.

But they ran into all kinds of objections from college presidents and organizations who said that any metrics, no matter how complex, wouldn't give you a way to compare the mission and special appeal of say, Emmanuel College, a Pentecostal-affiliated private school with 700 students in Georgia, with the University of California, Davis, which has 26,000 undergraduates.

So the government's tool as released avoids rating or ranking colleges.

In some ways, the differences among the lists Planet Money came up with prove the point that any particular ranking is somewhat arbitrary. The real question is whether all this information will help parents and students make better decisions.

Lisa Gelobter, who took the lead in designing the government's tool, says that they'll continue to do user-testing with high school and adult prospective students, and collect detailed information through users of the site to tweak and improve it. "To succeed is to get it into the hands of students," she said. "We want to do whatever we can to ensure that."

For more details on the methodology behind these rankings, go to

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When it comes to deciding where to apply to college, there is a lot more information to check. The U.S. Department of Education has released a huge amount of data about individual colleges - how many students actually graduate, how much they eventually earn, how many default on student loans. What the feds did not do is rank the colleges. So NPR did and came up with the top 50 performers in each of three categories. We asked Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Education team to explain.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Here at NPR, our own Planet Money team went out and actually created their own rankings of four-year colleges and universities. They asked three different higher education experts how they would weight the various pieces of information in the database, and then they came up with three very different top 50 lists. For example, if you look solely at income and net price, Harvard University is No. 1, as it often is.

If you broaden it and look at loan repayment, you will get schools that make financial sense in terms of paying back loans. Duke University is on top. And then the third list emphasizes upward mobility - how well colleges are serving first-generation and low-income students. And on that list, you'll see a lot of public institutions.

MONTAGNE: Let's go to one of those lists, the first one you mentioned - schools that make you money. Oh, OK, so Harvard's pretty obvious, Stanford - really obvious - Columbia, Duke, Yale. But jumping out at No. 5 is Babson College, which I think is fair to say many people have not heard of.

KAMENETZ: Right, so that's a private business school in Wellesley, Mass. The key word there is business. There are no liberal arts programs there. It's top entrepreneurship school in the United States. Another couple of surprising names on the list - Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd, both of them engineering-heavy schools, and a place called the University of the Sciences. And so this is all telling you that, you know - income, what really, really matters there is not as much your particular college but your choice of major, your choice of program. And so if you go to the - one of these schools, the chances are that you're going to major in something that's going to earn you a lot of money.

MONTAGNE: Now, another list - one of the other three lists - is schools that make financial sense, and that is not just about making money. It's about your education at that institution of higher learning will not, in the end, weight you down as much with debt or whatever. Why is Duke at the top?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, it's sort of one of the quirks of these lists, and it kind of shows, I think, why perhaps the federal government was reluctant to do a ranking. That, you know, at Duke, you have far more students who are taking out federal loans than you do perhaps at Harvard. It's 37 percent versus 3 percent. And so of those students who take out loans, their default rate is a lot lower at Duke. At Harvard, the very few students that do take out loans have a higher rate of defaulting.

MONTAGNE: And the third list, Anya - schools that emphasize upward mobility. That actually interests me in particular because I went to UC Berkeley, and this list is loaded down with University of California and California state schools.

KAMENETZ: Right, so this ranking is focusing on how well these schools are serving students who have Pell Grants, who are the first in their families to go to college, whose families make less than the median income. And this list, as you mentioned, is dominated by public institutions and particularly California state institutions. And I think, you know, ranking like this really shows something about the social mission of college. You have almost 80 percent of students nationwide who attend public institutions. And so looking at how well they serve the middle class and the working classes is a really key part of their mission.

MONTAGNE: Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team. Thanks very much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Renee.


MONTAGNE: And you can find Planet Money's top 50 college list at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.