Department of Education Announces Latest Additions to College Scorecard Data
Yesterday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced additions to the data available to consumers and researchers using the College Scorecard. Some of the changes announced include the average earnings two years after graduation based on field of study, the amount of Parent PLUS loans borrowed by parents of students to pay for their child to attend an institution and the amount of loans borrowed at previous institutions attended for students who transfer.
I have not been a fan of the College Scorecard since its creation, primarily because it is not a comprehensive student dataset. For some data, it continues to only report data on first-time, full-time students who utilize federal student aid. For other data, it only reports data on students, full-time and part-time, who utilize federal student aid. To the best of my knowledge, the Scorecard does not collect data on students who do not borrow money to attend college.
Reporting incomplete data or reporting data that only represents a small dataset of an institution’s students or graduates misrepresents that institution. Ironically, the Department of Education has rules prohibiting institutions from misrepresenting themselves to consumers, but ignores the fact that a dataset that they built and maintain does not represent a typical student at the university. It’s interesting that the Department of Education reports median debt, but they don’t provide a simple option that lets someone input how much they are able to pay and reflect the difference as a loan.
Since the institution that I know the best is the one that I led for the past 16 years, I decided to enter American Public University System (APUS) in the “search schools” field and review the changes from a consumer’s perspective.
Graduation rate is the first metric that you see on the Scorecard page related to APUS. The metric reported represents all students who graduated over the previous eight years after initially attending. The data includes full-time and part-time students, as well as students who initially started at APUS and students who transferred to APUS from another institution. Data also includes the number of students in a specific cohort that withdrew, transferred out, graduated, and who are still enrolled at the eight year mark. Because of its large percentage of part-time students, APUS allows its bachelor’s degree students to take up to ten years from initial enrollment to earn a baccalaureate degree.
At one point in time, this rate as reported on the College Scorecard reflected data from first-time, full-time students only. When all students are included, the data reports outcomes for 58,819 students. If the query includes only first-time, full-time students, the data reports outcomes for 2,131 students, or less than four percent of all students.
What the Scorecard does not report is that APUS is an open enrollment institution, serves primarily working adults, and is online only, three characteristics that negatively influence graduation rates when compared to institutions serving a more traditional student population on a traditional campus. APUS and similar institutions often present on their websites an explanation and reconciliation of graduation rates as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) with graduation rates as tracked by the institution.
Fields of Study Offered
According to the College Scorecard, they are tracking 87 undergraduate fields of study at APUS, 77 of which had relevant data on the number of graduates. The five largest in terms of graduates for the current cohort are presented first. These can also be sorted by highest earnings and lowest debt. You have to read the footnote to know that the Department groups’ degrees in categories so the field of study listed may not match the degree listed in the institution’s catalog.
When you click on a field of study, you are presented with the median earnings of a graduate who used federal student aid to fund all or part of their education. You are also presented with the median debt after graduation for all individuals who used (Federal Student Aid) FSA funding. A new feature added is a box that you can click to include debt borrowed at any prior institutions.
While I am glad that this feature requires the click of a box, I am not sure of its relevance given that it is using a median number. Individuals may transfer from many different institutions, priced differently, and at different stages of their education journey reflecting increased or decreased costs depending on the credit hours taken or earned.
For the five largest APUS fields of study in terms of graduates, I clicked on the box to include debt borrowed at any prior institutions. To my surprise, the debt transferred must be negative for all transfer students for these fields since the total median debt was reduced from $3,000 — $5,000 per field. I am not sure how this is possible unless students transferring received grants in excess of attendance costs. I will follow up at a later date, but clearly, this is another area where the College Scorecard data can be confusing and misleading.
I clicked on a few of the other fields of study listed. According to the footnotes, the number of graduates for a field includes all graduates regardless as to whether or not they received federal student aid (hoorah!). However, if the number of graduates is below a certain number (it may be 30), none of the borrowing or salary data is posted.
While the page indicates that 87 undergraduate fields of study are offered by APUS, the data includes master’s degrees as well when you click to expand for all fields of study. I clicked on a few master’s programs and was puzzled by the median debt total that exceeds the costs of a degree, unlike the undergraduate median debt total that was less than the costs of a degree. The only explanation that I can think of is that many of the students who borrow money for a master’s degree at APUS borrow more money for additional costs of living than undergraduate students.
I think it is odd that the Department chose to add an option where debt incurred at previous institutions can be added to a field of study at the same degree level, but it is not added for debt incurred to earn an undergraduate degree for students who are earning a master’s degree. I think back to my early years as a college student. I incurred four years of tuition and other costs to earn a bachelor’s degree, and I enrolled in an MBA program to have more job opportunities.
The MBA program was selective and required an undergraduate degree to enroll. If you are looking to ultimately calculate the costs of attendance or a return on investment (ROI), why wouldn’t you include the costs of an undergraduate degree for a graduate student? Perhaps that is an idea that goes too far for the higher education establishment.
Under the costs section, the average annual costs of attendance are posted minus the average grants and scholarships for federal financial aid recipients. In addition, there is a link to the college’s or university’s net cost calculator tool.
The average annual costs are also broken out by family income. While APUS does not charge differently based on family income, the numbers displayed are different for each of the five income brackets displayed.
Oddly enough, the next to highest income bracket, $75,001-$110,000, shows an average annual cost of $0. This compares to the lowest bracket of $0-$30,000 which shows an average annual cost of $9,527, and the highest bracket of $110,001+ that shows an average annual cost of $16,157.
The only thing that I can think of that explains the lower amounts at the lowest level is that many of those students receive Pell grants. The reason for $0 in the fourth highest bracket is strange unless the explanation is that no one in that bracket utilized FSA funding.
Financial Aid and Debt
The first detail I noted is a graph that indicates that 69 percent of APUS students receive federal loans. You have to click the footnote to read that this statistic represents the share of full-time, first-time undergraduate students who borrowed federal loans to help pay for college. It does not include students who transferred into the institution, part-time students, and non-first year students.
Although it does not mention this information in the footnote, that does not include students who do not receive federal loans. As far as I am concerned, this metric is worthless and misrepresents the typical APUS student since less than 4 percent of APUS students are first-time, full-time.
However, there is a disclaimer that states “at some schools where few students borrow federal loans, the typical undergraduate may leave school with $0 in debt.” There is no indication that APUS is one of those schools, even though a substantial percentage of APUS students do not borrow federal loans because their employers pay their tuition.
Median Total Debt After Graduation is another category and is expressed in terms of a range of total debt after graduation for undergraduate borrowers who complete college. If the institution offers certificates, the range may be lower than expected (with no explanation). In order to determine the highest number, you will have to go through each of the fields of study.
I know that the College Scorecard now includes data on Parent PLUS loans. However, since the vast majority of APUS students are independent, APUS does not participate in that program and no data is listed for Parent PLUS loans.
At the same time, I have read a number of articles reporting some of the average Parent PLUS loan balances for graduates, and the data is disappointing. It’s only my personal opinion, but colleges should not cost so much that parents are forced to borrow huge sums in addition to whatever funding a student receives through federal student aid funding.
If a college’s formula for financial aid is not reasonable, people should call it out rather than be forced to borrow large sums of money. I read where the average Parent PLUS loan for one school is $115,000. That’s beyond sad; it’s outrageous.
Salary after Completing by Field of Study
Previously, the Scorecard reported typical earnings in the first year after graduation. This year, the College Scorecard reports earnings in the second year after graduation.
A number of people have criticized the Department of Education for reporting data so close to graduation. Perhaps this will change over time as the Department continues to collect salary information. Once again, the data is expressed in the form of a range for all programs “for which there is data.”
The student body data is based on the full-time equivalent (FTE) student count of the institution. In the case of APUS, the College Scorecard lists 36,036 undergraduate students.
While that is a large number, it misrepresents the total number of students served by APUS, since part-time students are reduced by the relative percentage of credit hours they earn in order to derive the FTE number. The full-time students are listed at 6 percent on this page, which is slightly higher than the 4 percent listed for first-time, full-time students on the graduation rate page.
The student body page also includes a chart representing socioeconomic diversity. The chart notes that it represents the percentage of students who received an income-based federal Pell grant for low-income students. According to the chart, 80 percent of APUS students receive Pell grants.
Once again, you have to click for the footnote to find out that this percentage represents the percentage of full-time, first-time students who receive a Pell grant. So, it could be 80 percent of 4 percent or just 3.2 percent of the overall student population, or it could be higher if transfer students or part-time students are included.
If APUS posted this percentage on its website, I believe critics could rightly state that it would be misleading students to think that 80 percent of them could receive a Pell grant. The Department needs to do better.
Test Scores and Acceptance
This page includes standardized test scores for SAT and ACT as well as the acceptance rate. The page states that the data is not available, and the footnote states that not all schools report test scores. As a school that does not require SAT or ACT scores for admission, I think a more appropriate footnote would be “not required and not reported.”
For the acceptance rate, the College Scorecard states that this rate represents the percentage of first-time students that are accepted. Given the low percentage of first-time students, it’s not surprising that the data is not available.
However, if the majority of an institution’s students are transfer students or non-first-time, this data should be reported if it is available. At the College Navigator website maintained by the Department of Education, it correctly states under Admissions that APUS has an open admission policy. Perhaps the same terminology should be used for the College Scorecard.
After a fairly thorough review of one institution, I have too many questions and concerns about the data reported. The only data that I find useful is the salary data, but even that is inadequate since it only reports median salaries for graduates who utilized federal student aid funds to attend APUS. I know that represents less than half of all APUS graduates.
Once again, I call for the Department of Education to ask Congress for permission to publish a unified student database. If the College Scorecard included data on all students, it might become a more useful document than it is.
Whenever I have families interested in a particular college and university, I continue to refer them to the College Navigator website. While the data there may be more cumbersome to find, I think it provides better data other than it does not include the salaries of graduates.