Though the Department of Education released the College Scorecard update this morning with little fanfare, users who went to the site were pleasantly surprised by a new feature: a comparison tool that allows prospective students to compare up to 10 different colleges across a whole host of data measures.
Here’s how it works, in three easy steps. First, the prospective student selects his search criteria — maybe he wants schools that offer a particular degree type or program, that are located in a certain state or region, and/or that fulfill certain other criteria. Second, he selects up to 10 schools by clicking the “star” in the corner of each card on the search results page (see below, left). And finally, he can just click to compare and–voila–the schools’ results are stacked against each other on a number of variables.
Step 2: Star the Schools You’re Interested In
Step 3: Compare the Schools Side-by-Side
All in all, it’s a pretty straightforward tool for college comparison. Students get a straightforward, fair, easy-to-understand, and visual representation of how the schools they’re considering measure up to each other and to the typical school across the U.S.
It’s been a long time coming, too. Users’ inability to compare schools against each other put the College Scorecard at an obvious disadvantage compared with other, less outcomes-focused tools like College Board’s Big Future. And the Department had heard these concerns directly: College counselors from high schools across the country pleaded for a comparison feature, which they said was sorely needed so advisers could help students sort through their options. And Young Invincibles conducted presentations and listening sessions with about 90 high school students, who said one of their biggest asks for the College Scorecard developers was a way to compare schools side-by-side.
But more than just a useful tool that will help users access the data in ways that are helpful, the addition of the comparison tool begs the question of whether this is indicative of a larger commitment from Secretary DeVos.
The Secretary may not be willing to hold colleges accountable when they serve students poorly and waste taxpayer dollars–a terrible abdication of the Department’s obligation to be responsible stewards of taxpayers’ dollars. But what’s less clear is whether she is willing to help students vote with their feet, so to speak, and use data to make smarter choices about where they go to college. We don’t know whether the the Secretary will continue to build on the transparency work of the Obama Administration to give students and policymakers more and better information about colleges. It’s not clear whether she will continue to recognize the importance of examining actual outcomes for students–rather than allowing colleges to obfuscate their failures by hiding behind averages and staving off data improvements that might reveal programs of minimal value. And we don’t know if those goals might start to inform and drive the Department’s policies in other ways, too.
Only time will give us clarity on these kinds of questions. But today’s release of the College Scorecard was absolutely a step in the right direction.