In contrast to the college guidebooks addressed in the first blog in this series, the federal government’s recently revised College Scorecard* is designed to provide key, unbiased data to inform prospective college students about colleges and how to evaluate them based on a myriad of measures. This data is certainly valuable. Its interest, though, is likely better suited for researchers whereas it has the potential to mislead college hopefuls. Perhaps not surprising, the Scorecard and its torrent of data do not, in the views of many, live up to its promise generally nor with respect to HBCUs in particular.
The Scorecard has been the subject of considerable and extensive criticism. For example, some have criticized its heightened focus on salaries post degree receipt. Others have questioned the data sets used to create the Scorecard, noting that key information is missing or was not collected. The absence of data on race and ethnicity has been noted as well. These are all valid criticisms. But what is particularly problematic for us is the Scorecard’s overemphasis on financial costs, post-graduation earnings, and graduation rates without regard to other metrics that are insufficiently measured by data, such as unique academic programs or campus initiatives. These factors all lead the Scorecard to indirectly discount or omit HBCUs.
Here’s how it works:
When students or other users first see the Scorecard’s homepage, they are greeted with messages that claim: “On average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates” and “You could be eligible for up to $5,775 for free in Pell grants to help pay for college. No repayment needed!” Then, as if that focus were not clear enough, the site highlights specific institutions with high graduation rates and low costs.
Is that how we are meant to measure college fit? If so, it’s a big problem: we know that certain types of professions have lower income levels on average, and we also know that even controlling for other key variables, being a minority and first-generation student affects earnings, in part due to the difficulty of landing a first job without connections.
Given that the Scorecard’s privileged metrics rely on reductive data, there is not a single HBCU on any of the four lists on the College Scorecard homepage. Even assuming the accuracy of those lists with regard to data, it is alarming that there is an identification of specific institutions with high graduation rates and low costs. Is that how we are going to measure college fit? And, we know that certain types of professions have lower income levels on average, and we also know that even regressing for other key variables, being a minority and first generation student affects earnings, in part due to the difficulty of landing a first job without connections. On all four lists on the College Scorecard homepage, there is not a single HBCU. Even assuming the accuracy of these lists, it seems unwise pick criteria that exclude all HBCUs?
Consider this example used by the Scorecard on its homepage. On the list of two- year colleges with high salaries post-graduation, SUNY Westchester Community College in Valhalla NY is listed (and thus touted). The average earnings figure of its graduates is, to be sure, high: $37,400. But, consider the average graduation rate (ignoring for a moment how that is calculated): 13%. Yes—only 13% according to the Scorecard and yet the earnings data are so important that this institution is featured prominently on the Scorecard’s homepage. Several of the other lists are composed primarily of elite, highly selective colleges.
Beyond the issue of what the Scorecard chooses to prioritize, we are even more concerned about. It would not have been all that difficult to create an added drop-down window that referenced special features of a particular institution. For starters, one could reference key clubs and organizations (whether there was Greek life), internships and work study opportunities, advising services, and notable facilities like state-of the art computer labs, mock stock trading floors, or simulation laboratories. For example, Xavier University of Louisiana offers the Institute for Black Catholic Studies; this information would be extremely useful to prospective students passionate about Black Catholic studies but struggling to find a program. By knowing a school’s unique features, students would be better able to discover schools of interest to them.
Perhaps the most flagrant foul with respect to the Scorecard, however, rests with the difficulty of using its “Advanced Search” option to filter and search for schools. Unless one knew the name of a particular HBCU, for example, it would take three different steps to get a list of HBCUs, including knowing to go to “Advanced Search.” We know that low-income, first generation students are unfamiliar with the college options available to them. These students are less likely to know how or where to start looking for options beyond those that are automatically featured on the site. Instead of having options buried or accessible only by muddling through filters, our goal should be to more visibly promote institutions that would be a good fit for students.
As noted in the first blog and as evidenced here, improvement in enrollment at HBCUs requires some changes to information garnered and then released to the public. The College Scorecard could, but does not, inform decision-making sufficiently for the very students who would benefit from this information. In the next blog, we look at a different way of how information is distributed: from school counselors to students. This “internal focus” creates an opportunity for more personalized counseling.
Tyler Carrillo- Waggoner is a sophomore at Bennington College. She is an abstract artist that works with markers/colored pencils/pencils.
Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.
Pierce Huff recently graduated from Bennington College.
Aria Killough-Miller is one of four students from Bennington College’s spring 2016 course Understanding HBCU’s. A junior at the time of the time of this article, she is studying different means of conveying information, particularly Spanish, writing, and music. She is interested in social justice and hopes that this article contributes to making the world a little bit better.
Jessica Zeng is an undergraduate in Bennington College. There, she’s interested in studying how social action can be made through literature and art. Back at home in Brooklyn, New York, she has an adorable cat called Bokchoy.