News: Data, Research & Evaluation

College Scorecard Update: ED Releases Program-/Major-Level Data on Earnings

Friday, November 22, 2019  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced that it would expand and enhance its College Scorecard, including with program-level data. Last week, the department launched a total Scorecard “rethink” that includes program-level debt and earnings for about 40,000 academic programs. These data are valuable and provide another tool for advising students about their postsecondary pathway, but these data are also incomplete (representing just 20% of about 200,000 academic programs nationwide).

ED includes two-year programs, four-year degrees, certificate programs, and some graduate programs in “program-level” data.

“Every student is unique,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a press release. “What they study, as well as when, where, and how they chose to pursue their education will impact their future. Students know this instinctively. That’s why we worked to deliver a product that is customizable and transparent—a tool that provides real information students need to make informed, personalized decisions about their education."

The big change to the Scorecard comes in the pivot from institutional-level reporting of debt and earnings, which ED’s press release calls “a fairly meaningless metric given the diversity of programs and outcomes at any given single school,” to program-level earnings.

Beyond this change, other additions to the Scorecard include more intuitive filtering of completion rates by students who started at an institution or transferred in or both, and students who started their studies full-time, part-time, or both. Additionally, users can now filter institutions by acceptance rate, SAT/ACT scores, location, and other factors in a more intuitive fashion using the institutional search function.

Notably, all of the data in the College Scorecard come from students who received federal loans or Pell Grants. Additionally the new earnings data were measured just a year after graduation.

To be clear: NCAN would, in general, always like to see more data available to students, families, practitioners, and policymakers than less, but in this case some context is necessary. One of the reasons ED is releasing data is arguably because they are replacing the gainful employment regulations that were repealed in August 2018. The gainful employment data were an important (if narrow) accountability measure that largely focused on career training programs.

Michael Itzkowitz, the College Scorecard’s director under President Obama and a current senior fellow at Third Way, noted on Twitter that “It's great to have new data. Congrats on the Scorecard folks who are now at ED for putting this out. However, this is a transparency effort that can in no way serve as an equal substitute for actually holding institutions and programs accountable.”

First off, the data’s coverage, just 20% of programs, means that if a student or parent goes looking for information about debt and earnings, there's a strong chance it won’t be there. Second, transparency is necessary but not sufficient for accountability.

Quite frankly, market mechanisms, the idea that consumers will see these data and make informed choices about their postsecondary pathways, will almost certainly fall short here in improving consumer outcomes. There is a lot of information asymmetry here; the students most likely to benefit are also those least likely to have the knowledge to access the College Scorecard. Transparency puts the onus completely on consumers to make the informed call; true accountability would find institutions being rewarded (or sanctioned) for not correcting the conditions revealed by that transparency.

NCAN members should keep the updated College Scorecard in mind as one tool among many when advising students. As more data are collected, the gaps in the data availability will be filled in (though there will continue to be sample size limitations for any given academic program). It’s clear that even within institutions there is tremendous variation in earnings and debt outcomes by academic program. Students and families should be informed of these outcomes whenever the data allow for it.

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(Image via https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/)