ST. LOUIS - Saint Louis University officials have joined a growing number of higher education leaders and experts calling for revisions to the recently launched College Scorecard.
Designed by the U.S. Department of Education, the College Scorecard presents data on the cost of attendance, graduation rates, student loan default rates and median borrowing.
Almost immediately following its debut in February, the Scorecard came under fire from college and university officials, as well as the national organizations that represent them. While most applauded the program's intent - to give students and parents a tool for deciding on colleges - there were some who said it missed the mark.
On March 12, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) issued a news release saying that inconsistencies and incomplete information on the Scorecard "could lead students and parents to make erroneous assumptions, and jump to conclusions that could steer them away from an institution that might, in fact, be just the ‘right fit' they seek."
Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked five experts in higher-education research and student aid for their thoughts on specific aspects of the Scorecard. While some of the experts interviewed praised the effort toward increased openness, others said the Scorecard "doesn't offer enough context and uses flawed data." (5 Experts Give the College Scorecard a Barely Passing Grade, Feb. 25, 2013)
Educational leaders also have pointed out that the information on the Scorecard is presented in medians and averages, and as Inside Higher Education noted, "No student is average." (Little Help for Low-Income Students, Feb. 25, 2013)
This sentiment has been underscored by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, which has expressed concern that it's "hard to apply a one-size-fits-all form to all schools."
Additionally, the Institute for College Access and Success called the Scorecard "two steps forward, one step back," adding that some of the data presented are "less helpful and even downright misleading."
Beyond these overarching criticisms, Saint Louis University officials say that the graduation rate listed on SLU's College Scorecard is incorrect. The University's actual six-year graduation rate is 71 percent. (The 60.8 percent listed is SLU's four-year graduation rate, which is above the national average.)
Upon seeing the error, University officials reached out to the Department of Education to get the graduate ratio information corrected. The federal database that feeds information to the College Scorecard and similar college affordability efforts has been updated. SLU is hopeful its online Scorecard will be corrected soon.
Beyond incorrect graduation data, SLU officials expressed concern that the government doesn't provide strict guidelines on what institutions can provide as their "other" expenses that their students incur. This "other" category includes books, supplies, transportation, travel and miscellaneous personal expenses, such as clothing, laundry, groceries and extra meals not included in meal plans. Colleges and universities have significant leeway on what they can report for these costs.
Jay Goff, vice president for enrollment and retention management at Saint Louis University, said SLU was transparent about the cost of attendance long before it became a rallying cry for the Obama administration.
For years, SLU has conducted extensive surveys of its students to gauge the true cost of attendance, and has openly provided this information to prospective families.
Based on survey data, SLU reported its "other" annual expenses for the 2009-2010 academic year (the time period reflected on the College Scorecard) as $5,868.
At the same time, private institutions in cities with dramatically higher costs of living than St. Louis - New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Chicago - reported "other" expenses much less than SLU, sometimes as little as $200 to $2,000 per year. And these figures include travel expenses for students at institutions that draw from an even wider geographic area than SLU.
"Our commitment to being as transparent as possible with our prospective students and parents may have hurt us on the College Scorecard comparisons," Goff said. "We strongly believe the Department of Education needs to address these inconsistences before the College Scorecard can truly offer families an accurate comparison on the cost of attendance between schools."
While SLU supports greater transparency about the cost of attending college, it has been critical of programs like College Scorecard, as well as the similar College Navigator initiative, because they do not provide a complete picture, but rather a single snapshot of average statistics, often based on outdated data.
For greater accuracy, Goff encouraged parents to request comprehensive information from financial aid offices about the projected cost of attendance that is specific to their family's needs. He added that it's also critical to get clarity on the two types of costs for college: direct and indirect. Cost of Attendance includes indirect costs for items such as transportation, living and miscellaneous expenses. Direct costs are those billed by and paid to the institution, such as tuition, fees and on-campus room and board.
Most colleges and universities also have cost calculators posted on their websites. SLU's online cost calculators, for example, provide customizable, detailed and more accurate financial projections.
In addition to concerns over the accuracy of data and institutional comparisons, critics agree that sources like the College Scorecard and College Navigator confuse cost with value.
"These sources fail to speak to the superior quality of our academic programs, our strong student outcomes, and the increasing value of a Saint Louis University education," Goff said.
Affordability is a Priority
Goff said that keeping a SLU education affordable has been and will continue to be a top priority for the University.
"We know that a college education is one of the most significant investments a family will ever make," Goff said. "We're committed to doing everything we can to ensure that all students have the opportunity to pursue their degrees at Saint Louis University."
As part of that commitment, SLU has invested vast institutional resources to helping students and their families afford their education. During the past decade, the University has provided students with more than $1 billion in institutional financial assistance. Today, 86.5 percent of all SLU students receive some form of financial aid.
For the 2013-2014 school year, SLU has budgeted an estimated $132.1 million for scholarships and financial aid. That's nearly $9 million more than the current year, and marks the 10th consecutive year that SLU has increased its institutional aid budget for its students.
In addition, the University is looking at how it will use its own aid and loan programs to help students who may receive less federal aid if the planned sequester cuts go through. Among its efforts, SLU will increase the amount of the financial awards it gives through its Magis program, which helps the University's neediest students.