RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama has already checked off one item on his State of the Union list of priorities, and that's providing an online scorecard for prospective college students. That scorecard is aimed at helping students figure out how much the schools they want to attend will actually cost.
The Department of Education launched the scorecard yesterday on its website. That information is something many college applicants want as they face rising tuition and the potentially stifling debt that goes along with it.
For more on the challenges the administration hopes this tool will combat, we turn to Goldie Blumenstyk. She's senior writer with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Thank you very much for joining us.
GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Oh, glad to be here.
MONTAGNE: Well, first of all, this is not a new idea. President Obama proposed the college scorecard last year. Explain what it is exactly.
BLUMENSTYK: It's this interactive tool and what it does is it draws a lot of data from a very, very arcane data set that the Education Department runs. This is designed to be a little bit more user-friendly and helps people identify colleges either by name or by major and then look at the graduation rates, the net cost, and also the loan debt that they might have later on and what the monthly payment might be on that loan.
MONTAGNE: The Center for American Progress did a study with students using a draft scorecard. What did they find?
BLUMENSTYK: What they found was that some of the terms that the scorecard used weren't really very understandable to students. That report, I think, measured primarily traditional age students, which is not even the majority of students anymore. The scorecard uses the federal definition of a graduation rate, which is a six-year rate. Students who are coming right out of high school tend to think generally more of about a four-year graduation rate. So it's the standard measure that the Education Department and most everybody else in higher ed policy uses, but doesn't really measure the majority of students today.
MONTAGNE: What other issues do colleges(ph) have about a scorecard like this?
BLUMENSTYK: I think in general the colleges tend to be reluctant about having this kind of comparability because every college has a different mission and a different focus. Consumers like the accountability. They like the transparency, and in a lot of ways this kind of takes the transparency movement to a new level, which is helpful for students. Right now there's very little out there to help students compare these costs and get at some of the other issues.
MONTAGNE: There are websites, and publications for years have been putting out yearly rankings of different colleges - maybe the most famous, U.S. News and World Report's college ranking system. People actually look for that. So the federal government does what that is better than that or is different from that?
BLUMENSTYK: Well, in one respect the beauty of this new scorecard is that it can't be as easily gamed as many of those rankings are now. We've seen a lot of incidences recently where colleges are juicing their numbers by actually not reporting certain parts of their statistics, or recruiting more students to apply even though they know they'll never get in, just to make them appear more selective.
MONTAGNE: Right, which happened with the U.S. News and World Report...
BLUMENSTYK: Right. Or flat-out lying to U.S. News and World Report about their selectivity or about the grades of their students. This scorecard is based on sort of more objective data and in that respect it can't be as easily gamed as some of the other ones out there.
MONTAGNE: In the wake of some sort of series of horror stories about students getting stuck with degrees that are not worth much in the job market and have these huge crushing debts, there have been calls for the federal government to simplify the process for applying for aid and toward schools that serve low income students in particular. Are there other things the federal government is doing or can do to help with college affordability and usefulness?
BLUMENSTYK: Well, one thing that they have been doing is they've actually made some changes in the loan repayment systems with more income-based repayment systems. There are a lot of stories about crushing student debt. It's important to note that the average student loan debt is still only about $26,600. College leaders often talk about the cost of a car versus the cost of a college education. There's plenty of people in America who probably buy a car every year and have close to $26,000 in debt, and that's a car that will depreciate from the day you take it off a lot. Your college education hopefully will be of more value to you throughout your lifetime.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
BLUMENSTYK: Well, thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: Goldie Blumenstyk is a senior writer with at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.