Three Metrics I Didn’t Have During My College Search, But I’m Glad Students Now Do
By: Janiel Santos
The college search process is a pivotal point in a student’s college journey, and often an unnecessarily challenging one. I still vividly remember the overwhelming frustration that came with sorting through information packets and struggling to compare institutional outcomes as I attempted to narrow down my top college choices. As the first in my family to go to college, the process was daunting and difficult to navigate. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to study, but I did know this decision would have long lasting impacts on my career trajectory, wealth, and wellbeing. Try as I might, I didn’t feel like I had enough information to know at what college or university my hard work was most likely to open the door to the better living and better life that higher education should provide.
My experience of feeling I didn’t have enough information to make a fully informed decision is common because – put simply – I didn’t have enough information to make a fully informed decision! Across the country, data on higher education outcomes is limited. For example, there is limited transparency on wealth outcomes for various student populations, including first-generation college students, such as myself, and little clarity on the repayment statuses and loan payment amount for students.
The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard is designed to facilitate the type of comparisons I craved in my college search 8 years ago. The Scorecard has gone through several iterations and updates since its initial release in 2015, including one announced earlier this month, so I can only imagine how differently my search would have played out had I had access to the additional information the newest iteration of the tool now offers.
The latest refresh includes the reinstatement and addition of several metrics, a number of which were recommended by the Postsecondary Data Collaborative, that offer critical insights on the strength of students’ career outcomes. If I were conducting my college search today, I would leverage three of the newly available data points to determine which institutions would best set me up for success after graduation: 1) the share of students earning more than a high school graduate; 2) institution-level earnings data; and 3) cumulative student loan debt at the institution and in the program I wanted to pursue.
1) The Share of Students Who Earn More than a High School Graduate. This reinstated threshold metric demonstrates whether students’ investment of time, money, and resources will leave them better off than if they had not attended college. Now more than ever, providing this transparency is critical, especially as enrollment trends in a COVID-19 world continue to fluctuate[i] and more students question the value of investing in higher education. In a recent survey, two out of three current college students felt that higher education was not worth the cost—up from nearly half of students in 2020.[ii] This shift in perception is troubling given the extent of research demonstrating that a quality degree or credential can be a pathway to economic and social mobility. These reinstated Scorecard data can help students identify which institutions are best positioned to deliver valuable, quality credentials) that catalyze upward mobility and are worth the investment.
2) Institution-Level Earnings Data. This reinstated data point provides a broad view of earnings outcomes. Since 2019, the Scorecard has included program-level earnings data, a useful metric for prospective students who are already set on a particular field of study. However, this program-level data is not particularly useful for prospective students who, like me, are entering college not certain of their field of study, or for students who may switch between fields throughout their degree journeys. A recent study notes that one third of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs changed majors in their first three years as an undergraduate, and nearly one in ten change fields of study more than once.[iii] Given how commonly students change majors and fields of interest, this metric helps students compare both institutional and program-level earnings data to know the strength of outcomes post-completion no matter if they’ve set their sights on a particular field of study or not.
3) Cumulative Student Loan Debt at the Institution and Program Level. Where the first two indicators illuminate the strength of post-college earnings and career outcomes, the third indicator rounds out students’ view into whether their investment in higher education is worth the cost: cumulative loan debt of student borrowers at both the institution and programmatic levels.. This metric allows students to weigh whether the cost of an institution and their potential earnings sets them up for successful repayment. Information on cumulative debt is a crucial data point for students as they consider making the important, but potentially expensive, investment in a postsecondary education and decide how to pay for it.
Together, these three key metrics provide critical context to a prospective students’ college search and allow them to make informed college choices. While these updates still aren’t as robust as the insight the College Transparency Act would provide, the increased transparency into workforce outcomes provides vital information to students during a consequential time in their lives. Had I had access to such data when I first contemplated college, these metrics could have made me feel more confident in my decision, knowing that it was grounded in data. Students deserve accessible, digestible information that highlights how their institution of choice will set them up for success and present a strong case for why students should make the investment in a higher education. The updates to the Scorecard are a step in the right direction and will help today’s students and many generations to come.
[i] National Student Clearinghouse. (January, 13, 2022). Current term enrollment estimates. https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/
[ii] Fishman, R., Nguyen, S., Klebs, S. and Hiler, T. (2021) One year later: COVID-19s impact on current and future college students. New America.(link is external) https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/covid-19s-impact-on-current-and-future-college-students
[iii] U.S. Department of Education. (2017). Beginning college students who change their majors within 3 years of enrollment. https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2018434