Hats and Scorecards

In the “other duties assigned” part of my job description is a bullet point that says, “Human Hat Rack.”

I think it refers to the multiple roles that we are all called to play in our roles as college admission professionals.

One hour we’re wearing counselor hats, helping students make good decisions about college fit, the next we’re wearing the IT, trouble-shooting our computers. (“Let’s see… if I smack it right here, will that fix it?”)

Sometimes I’m wearing one of those old-timey hats with a “Press” card in the hatband, called into service as an investigative reporter, like when I’m responding to a well-meaning friend, faculty member, trustee, or parent who has forwarded to me an article with an attention-grabbing (i.e., click-inducing/ad-revenue-generating) headline like “Liberal Arts College Graduates Make Less Money Than Your Neighbor’s Dog” or “Child Inventor of Cold Fusion Denied Admission To Top Choice College.”

You’re familiar with these stories. They’re the ones that build a sensational narrative out of a handful of facts without providing the fuller context that might make the story more informative—while simultaneously making it less newsworthy.

Such was—and continues to be—the case with stories that use the College Scorecard as their reference point. The Scorecard is a treasure trove of data, but without fully considering the context, these data can be misused, leading people to faulty conclusions. And when journalists use the data selectively to tell incomplete stories, the effect multiplies.

I saw the effect when a friend of mine sent me a link to a Scorecard-inspired Wall Street Journal article with the headline Student Debt Payback Lags.

He expressed worry about college grads in general and Lawrence graduates in particular.

I assured him that the good news was that Lawrentians who graduate with debt fare pretty well: 96% are repaying after 7 years, one of the scorecard benchmarks. (Our performance, however, pales in comparison to the assiduous graduates of Moler Barber College of Hair Styling and the International Yacht Restoration School, who are at 100%.)

We’ll often see breathlessly written—and breathtaking—articles focusing on $1.2-trillion in debt held by college attendees, not all of whom are graduates. These stories, too, often fail to contextualize who is carrying the debt, lumping together an entire sector without accounting for the differences in non-profit vs. for-profit, or undergraduate vs. graduate or professional schools.

As admission practitioners, we understand that the world of data associated with higher education is more nuanced—and we also have a responsibility to help those we serve (students, families, institutional stakeholders, etc.) understand those nuances.

Even with the College Scorecard itself, we need to help families avoid falling into the seductively simple conclusions that are so easy to draw from the sleek, attractive, government-developed website. The Fed claims not to have developed a ratings system—despite previous pronouncements that they wanted to try. What they have done instead is drop the resources onto families to allow them to do the rankings themselves.

Users need to keep in mind some of the data and assumptions behind the Scorecard. For example:

  • By focusing so sharply on earnings, the Scorecard seems to have reduced colleges’ primary function to creating salary-earning loan repayers. There is nothing in the Scorecard that addresses the other, more difficult-to-measure values that a college education offers, or the qualities of mind that some colleges have as their educational mission.
  • The student dataset is limited only to those students who receive federal student aid, which means there is, for many colleges, a very large number of students whose results never get included.
  • Notably absent: how many alumni go to graduate or professional school.
  • Also missing is a consideration of the type of work a college’s graduates do. If a school disproportionately sends grads into lower-paying careers, like education or non-profit work, it is going to be more of an under-performer using these metrics.

We could argue that the College Scorecard itself is a great case in point about why a liberal arts education is so important: it teaches you how to ask questions about data, and challenge how they are interpreted and used. (I suppose I just did.)

I will now remove my philosopher’s hat, and put on my chauffeur hat. I have to go pick up some prospective students from the airport.

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