The College Scorecard: Painting by the Numbers

President Barack Obama speaks at Macomb County Community College Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in Warren, Mich. Obama announces n
President Barack Obama speaks at Macomb County Community College Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in Warren, Mich. Obama announces new steps to expand apprenticeships and a push to make community college free for responsible students. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Obama Administration has worked steadily to develop a consumer-based website to provide information on American colleges and universities that will be useful and helpful to consumers. In doing so, President Obama suggested that he hoped to "shake up" American higher education.

It would be shortsighted to dismiss the President's claims of noble intentions aimed at finding good value among more transparent colleges and universities. In fact, the dissemination of better data is perhaps the best way to offset the government by anecdote approach in which the latest polling results sometimes determine educational priorities within public policy.

Hyped further by the media - especially social media - the results often leave the consumer uniformed or misinformed. Understanding how to apply, attend, and graduate from college and then find employment after graduation is already complex enough.

This past weekend, the Obama Administration released new information prior to the President's visit to Iowa today to discuss college costs. The Administration indicated that the new data is grouped within an online tool, a sort of 2.0 version of the original College Scorecard and bearing the same name. It will provide data on graduation rates, median salary information, and loan repayment rates.

Significantly, the "new" College Scorecard will offer analysis of graduates' success patterns, including salary information for students who receive federal loans and Pell Grants.

On the surface the new College Scorecard sounds pretty good. Applicants and their families should make the most informed choice possible because college is a life-altering decision in which the stakes are high. It's also important because access is a metric against which American society measures itself.

It is a victory for private colleges and universities, in particular, whose leadership vehemently argued against the original college ratings system proposed as part of the first Obama Administration proposal two years ago.

Let's be clear that more information is a good thing, showcasing the complexity and diversity of offerings available in American higher education. There are, however, at least three issues that must be addressed for the College Scorecard to work well.

The first issue involves the quality of the information provided, a point already raised by groups like the American Council on Education. Skeptics question the data limitations that diminish its reliability, just as the President is touting this reliability to sell the new on-line program.

There are many unanswered questions. Does the program reliably peel back the onion, for example, to distinguish between salaries by degree, surely an important criterion in choosing a major?

Is there a difference at least implied between an employed sociology major and an employed engineering graduate, without prejudicing the case for one major over another? Does a broad-brush approach skew consumer mindset more toward high-demand, high-income jobs, for instance, at the expense of teaching, state and federal employment, and non-profit careers?

Should federal policy makers effectively pick winners and losers? Nuance matters, especially if America is shaping its workforce through encouraged but undifferentiated consumer shopping. Sometimes more data are just more data.

Second, how will this data be broadly disseminated among users? Has the technology - especially mobile applications - been tested widely? Further, are the explanations of how to use the data carefully explained, market tested, and carefully assessed? Data of mixed quality presented with little explanation to uninformed consumers can actually make matters worse.

Third, has the Obama Administration defined clear metrics by which it can measure the success of its website with consumers? Their explanation that the tool will evolve holds merit. But the failure to identify a reliable, well-utilized, widely tested "gold standard" on-line platform pushes data without context and meaning effectively encouraging government-backed "scorecard" rankings, at least by others who might use it to promote their own ratings brands.

Do we really need more college "swimsuit" editions?

Colleges and universities need to accept that heightened levels of transparency are a better way to shape how they present themselves to applicants and their families. They must work diligently to improve their dialogue with families, answering the kinds of questions addressed, for example, in Roger Martin's thoughtful new book, Off to College: A Guide for Parents. Further, colleges and universities must lead rather than simply react as the direction of the new website takes shape.

Yet the federal government must also manage responsibly and fairly. It must not use consumer information to prejudice an applicant's choice in the name of encouraging access. It must not present a poorly explained information overload as better policy without taking steps to guarantee reliability, consumer understanding, and balanced "apples-to-apples" comparisons within its data fields.

Let's hope that the new consumer website is a win for both colleges and the federal government - but most important for the American consumer.