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Finding the Best Avenue to Compare College Costs

High school students are eager for clear information when comparing college costs. The administration's new College Scorecard, in its final stages of design, is an attempt to provide just that.

But a report released Monday from the Center for American Progress suggests that the tool could be improved with feedback from the potential users.

"Though policymakers are working diligently and conscientiously to design a scorecard that will help students and families, the college scorecard has not been subjected to systematic testing by actual students and parents," the CAP report notes.

The scorecard, which will be available through the U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center, will be an online tool giving consumer information about costs, graduation rates, student-debt statistics, and earning potential of graduates.

A review of the proposed scorecard and testing of students in focus groups by CAP revealed some shortcomings and confusion. Among CAP's recommendations to improve the scorecard:

• Add an introductory description, name, or logo to immediately communicate its purpose.

• Redesign the visual look of the site to make it easier to follow and read.

• Test ways of better communicating the confusing concept of "net price."

• Highlight information on four-year, not six-year, graduation rates.

College-admissions and financial-aid experts, including some from CAP, have been invited by the administration to review the college-scorecard design and offer suggestions.

In the meantime, other websites, such as College Abacus, also are entering the market to offer families more cost transparency. While the government site provides average net prices, this tool gives consumers more specific estimates based on their personal financial information, says Abigail Seldin, chief product officer and co-founder of the company, which was formed in March and launched online in October.

College Abacus, which is free to users and currently contains information from 2,500 schools, also allows consumers to compare costs across institutions, adds Seldin. The company pledges not to sell the financial information of its users, but generates some of its revenue by providing colleges with names and email information of students that express an interest in their school.

The Education Trust has College Results Online, an interactive website that includes cost, retention, transfer, and graduation rates for colleges and how those rates have changed over time, with specific information for students from diverse groups.

The bottom-line cost of attending college varies widely by sector and individual school. These tools can help students make smart choices, if they can easily access them and make the time to compare.

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