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President Obama's New 'College Scorecard' Is A Torrent Of Data

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President Obama has been talking about creating a Consumer Reports-style college ratings system for more than a year. But the effort seemed to get bogged down in politics and a debate over what metrics to include.

Well, in a Saturday surprise, Obama unveiled his new College Scorecard this morning.

"You'll be able to see how much each school's graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school's students can pay back their loans," the president said in his weekly address.

But calling this a scorecard is like calling Mt. Vesuvius a hill; at best, it's an understatement. It's also technically wrong. What the government released today isn't a scorecard at all — it's a data dump of epic proportions.

Here's how it works: You can type in the name of a college here, and the site will tell you lots of old basics, including average annual cost and graduation rate.

But there's also lots of useful, new information. You can now see how much students earn 10 years after entering a school (thanks to a joint effort between the departments of Education and the Treasury). Also accessible for the first time are the percentage of first-generation students at a given school and the percentage of students who repay at least a dollar of principal on their federal loans within three years.

"This is government working for us. My first thought was, 'Go Department of Education,' " says Sara Goldrick-Rab, who teaches education policy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "We had some information college by college before, but we didn't have most of these outcomes here."

And there are a lot of outcomes: 171 megabytes of data. That's a big step forward, says Goldrick-Rab — with one caveat:

"I still worry," she says. "It's good information to have, but it doesn't tell an individual student what to do."

And Goldrick-Rab isn't the only one who's worried.

"There are factoids here that reflect traditional, national norms that don't reflect who we are," says Pat McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The students at this historic women's college are 95 percent black and Hispanic, and predominantly low-income. According to the government's scorecard, Trinity is below average on graduation rate, retention and students paying down their debt.

But, McGuire says, a school that serves vulnerable students can't be judged by those metrics alone. She says Trinity's students often take eight, even 10 years to graduate. They might go part-time. They might leave and come back. The scorecard doesn't capture that level of nuance.

"And it would suggest to consumers that everybody would be better off going to Georgetown or to Harvard than to a school like Trinity," says McGuire. "And, of course, most of the students we serve are just delighted to be here and probably would not be admitted to those institutions."

Notice that McGuire used the word "suggest." Because, in truth, the scorecard doesn't draw direct comparisons — for this very reason. It wouldn't be fair, or accurate.

Instead, the federal government has backed a dumptruck to consumers' doors and left it to students and their parents to compare all those apples and oranges.

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