Federal college comparison tool receives praise, criticism from Md. educators

Some say Obama's new college comparison tool will be useful. Others say it "misinforms more than it informs."

An online tool created by the Obama administration to help college-bound students comparison shop drew praise from some universities that appear to be good bargains and derision from others who said it was too simplistic to look at cost versus potential earning power.

Graduates from the Johns Hopkins University make a median salary of $69,200 a decade after enrolling in the undergraduate school, which costs about $26,600 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard.

The cost is the net price paid by students after all financial aid. For public schools, the cost is calculated for in-state students.

In contrast, Maryland Institute College of Art alumni make $31,400, and that school costs more than $35,000 a year, the data shows.

The College Scorecard is a redesign of a prior effort by the administration to rank colleges — fiercely opposed by many schools as subjective and unworkable.

Collecting data on the millions of students who graduate from college every year is a monumental task, so the Department of Education attempted something more manageable: matching federally reported employment data with undergraduate students who received federal financial aid while in college.

The result doesn't paint a full picture of graduate outcomes, but some students and schools said having even limited data available would be useful.

Kennard A. Wallace, student council president of the University System of Maryland, said the tool would be helpful for prospective students but cautioned that college experiences are "more than just above or below a national average on a graph." Those looking for schools should realize "there's a story behind every figure."

"It's a necessary tool, and it's going to be beneficial, but it's up to the institutions to sell their record on how they're going to help their students," said Wallace, a public affairs master's student at the University of Baltimore. "That's not up to the Department of Education."

Mamie Voight, director of policy research for the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit that aims to increase college access, said students need quality data so they can be "as informed as they could be while making this big life decision."

"There are certainly some improvements that can be made and should be made, but the department has done a lot of what it can do in its existing authority," she said of the college scorecard.

The national average cost for a college education is about $16,800 per year, and 44 percent of students graduate on time. They earn a median salary of more than $34,000 a year, 10 years after enrolling in college.

While MICA graduates make lower-than-average salaries, MICA spokeswoman Debra Rubino noted that the data also shows about 72 percent of students graduate on time and 91 percent repay their college debt on schedule — both far above national averages. She also said many graduates choose to build their careers as self-employed entrepreneurs.

"If you're just looking at the cost and salary after attendance, it's a little too simplistic," she said. "It's a little bit more complicated than first meets the eye."

Rubino said the school's data indicates that every graduate of MICA's education master's program gets a job. "Maybe we should be looking at how much we pay our teachers," she said.

Kurt Schmoke, University of Baltimore president and former city mayor, said the report "misinforms more than it informs." The institution's graduates earn a median salary of $58,000, and the school's average annual cost is $16,780.

"At the University of Baltimore, we have many students who are 28 and older, who are transferring in from other campuses and who are working full- or part-time jobs," he said in a statement. "Why compare us to an institution where the average age is 18 or 19, and where a large majority of the student population is coming straight out of high school?

"We hope the U.S. Department of Education continues to work on the scorecard model, keeping in mind that one size does not fit all."

Obama first announced his intentions to create a college rankings system in 2013, and his administration indicated that it could include information like employment and earnings.

But the measure withered under criticism from higher education officials, who argued it would be unfair to compare the vastly different types of colleges and universities in the U.S. They argued that a system using data on students with financial aid could skew the results because it wouldn't take into account how many low-income students attended the institution.

The online tool debuted this weekend as the White House also announced that aspiring college students will be allowed to apply for federal financial aid three months earlier and submit a previous year's tax return — changes aimed at helping more people pay for school.

Some higher education officials continue to be skeptical but acknowledged that the availability of the data, while limited, could be useful information for the Department of Education, which regulates colleges and universities.

"Isn't this a de facto admission that there are some really toxic institutions, and isn't the government shifting the burden from itself to prospective victims?" said Barmak Nassirian, director of policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Is it better that they are dumping the data out there than just hiding it? Absolutely, but my hope is that the consumer that pays the most attention to the data is the department itself."

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement the data's usefulness was unclear. She called it "a first step."

"Given what we believe are significant data limitations, this revamped Scorecard may or may not provide meaningful information to the students and families it was designed to help," she said. "For example, it appears the system only provides a single number for an entire institution regardless of whether a student studied chemical engineering or philosophy."

Loyola University Maryland spokesman Nick Alexopulos said the scorecard is a fair analysis but needs more context, such as scholarship figures and class diversity. According to the data, the school's average annual cost is about $36,000 a year, and graduates earn a median salary of $62,000 a decade later.

"It highlighted a lot of what makes a Loyola University Maryland education so valuable," Alexopulos said. "It showed us what we already know: The education is extraordinarily valuable to students who go here."

At the University of Maryland, College Park, the average annual cost is $16,300, and graduates make more than $59,000.

"We are honored to be among the best public institutions and will continue working to connect students with meaningful experiences in internships and research that lead to high-paying jobs," Kelley Bishop, director of the university's career center, said in a statement.

Yvette Mozie-Ross, University of Maryland, Baltimore County's vice provost for enrollment management and planning, said she was "very impressed" with the comparison tool. The university costs about $18,500 a year, and graduates earn about $53,500.

She said prospective students and their parents will use the tool — and others. "While it's a very useful tool as a starting point, it's important that they not take it at face value, and do more research."

"More and more of our prospective students and parents are fairly savvy consumers," she said. "They're coming to admissions events with lots of questions and wanting to inform their decisions."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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