- The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that it upgraded its College Scorecard to let users compare data on median student loan debt and post-graduate earnings by program of study within institutions.
- The new data follows the Scorecard's recent expansion to add 2,100 institutions that grant certificates to the existing set of 3,700 degree-granting schools in the database as well as preliminary data on debt by program.
- While the update reflects a bipartisan push to collect more and better data on how people fare after earning a credential, it has some limitations, observers say.
Prospective students can use the retooled database, which was first developed under the Obama administration, to learn how much graduates in their desired program tend to earn, as well as what they might expect to pay in federal student loans each month.
The data covers graduates who received federal loans or grants for two- and four-year degrees as well as certificates and some graduate programs. Previously, the data was limited to median earnings and debt at the institutional level.
"This is just a big step forward for higher education data and I think it's going to spark a lot of discussions on college campuses," said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. "If a program has high debt and low earnings, there need be discussions about whether that program is still useful to offer."
For instance, it doesn't include Parent PLUS or private student loans, which means users might not be aware of the full amount students are borrowing to afford their credential.
It also doesn't consider students who didn't earn an income, didn't complete a credential or didn't borrow to attend college. In the latter case, that could leave out students at affordability-focused institutions such as public community colleges, where fewer students take out loans and those who do tend to borrow less relative to students at four-year colleges.
And for now, it only shows income data for students in their first year out of college, which offers a limited view of their earnings potential.
Another limitation is the scope of the earnings data itself, which Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow for higher education at Third Way, said covers only 20% of all programs, according to his analysis.
"It's great and it's a huge effort from the department to put out this data," he said. But "if we expect that this one release will now guide most students towards better-performing programs because of this data, unfortunately too often the answer will be no."
The department is expected to update the data yearly, slowly filling in a picture of how graduates' earnings prospects and debt levels progress in subsequent years out of school.
The Wall Street Journal points out in its analysis of the data that graduates in 15% of programs tracked had more debt than income in their first year out of school. And for 2% of programs, graduates had more than twice as much debt as income.
This was more often the case for doctoral and professional degree programs, which had larger shares of graduates reporting higher earnings than did those in lower degrees, for which students tended to borrow less, according to The Journal.
Degrees from specialty institutions rank highly for long-term value to students, a new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) found. Elite universities were also near the top of CEW's list, though as the new Scorecard data indicates, earnings can vary wildly across such vast institutions.
For instance, the Scorecard lists Harvard University's post-graduation salary range as $37,000 to $129,000. Computer science bachelor's graduates were at the top of that range while students with a general bachelor's in English language and literature were at the bottom.
The administration has pitched the Scorecard as a way to help students be better informed about the college they choose to attend and as an alternative to earlier accountability measures. But critics say it isn't doing enough to hold colleges responsible for students graduating on time and paying off their loans.
A bipartisan group of legislators is pushing to collect data on all graduates, not just those who received federal aid. They also want to look at a wider range of factors, such as earnings, employment and whether graduates went on for further education.