Grading The College Scorecard: Needs Improvement

The new federal College Scorecard is a step forward for transparency in higher education, but as a career tool, it needs a lot of improvement.

Choosing a college is one of the biggest—and most expensive—choices young people make. For most, a major factor in that choice is how college will prepare them for a career. But generally speaking, students don’t have a roadmap to the job market. They don’t know what jobs are available, what skills are in demand, and what pathways they can take to advance.

The College Scorecard pulls together a lot of information in one place, and that’s significant. Linking earnings information to college choices could make a tremendous difference in helping families make more informed decisions. But the scorecard currently doesn’t have nearly the level of specificity that students need to make career choices. Consider, for example, one prominent statistic: salary after attending, which provides median salary 10 years after graduation. It’s featured in lists like “23 Four-Year Schools With Low Costs That Lead to High Incomes.”

Arguably, of course, that 10-year-look is old information (consider how different the job market looked in 2005”).But even more importantly, consider what you get when you search by degree program. Here’s what you get for MIT if you search for computer science degrees vs English degrees:

Computer Science English
college scorecard MIT Another College Scorecard MIT

It’s the same one-size-fits-all profile, and that median figure doesn’t break out by degree programs. Which would be fine, if editors and engineers made the same amount of money.

But students aren’t just choosing a college, they’re choosing a career path, and lumping all careers together isn’t helpful. To really empower students with the right information, we’ve got to be much more granular. Median earnings by degree program would be a start.

Just as importantly, salaries should hardly be the cornerstone metric of success, especially for tracking the performance of graduating classes ten years back. For example, schools with large numbers of students pursuing worthwhile careers in public service or academic graduate studies will naturally post lower salaries than an institution focused on business studies.

What can be more helpful to students is information on what the job market is likely to look like when they graduate. And that means getting specific. Students need step-by-step career pathways, breaking down not only earnings, but also what credentials and skills are needed to enter a career and move upward.

Transparency is both a virtue and a powerful tool. Transparency works best, however, when the information made transparent speaks to the public’s needs. At least when it comes to careers, the college scorecard has a way to go.