The Obama Administration’s College Scorecard is a “wonderful idea” that needs better salary data before it’s truly able to help students identify colleges that provide the “biggest bang for the buck.”

That’s the conclusion of a new Brookings Institution research report, whose authors also warn that the tool could be scuttled by Obama’s successor unless a long-term plan for administering it is put into place.

To improve College Scorecard and ensure that it’s available for years to come, authors Grover Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos recommend putting the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in charge of tweaking and maintaining the tool.

Nestled within the Department of Education, NCES “is the obvious entity to take charge of the Scorecard data and to integrate it with the more full-featured college search tool it already offers, College Navigator,” Whitehurst and Chingos say.

College Scorecard only has access to salary data for students receiving federal aid, so the numbers it displays for a particular school exclude “significant numbers of students,” the paper notes.

The inability to break out earnings data by major is another serious limitation, since a degree in electrical engineering is typically worth more than a degree in child and family studies, the report notes.

Other confounding factors are that each student’s salary data gets thrown into the averages for every school that they attended on federal aid — even if only for a semester —  and earnings outcomes are “strongly correlated” with students’ backgrounds, which the Scorecard doesn’t account for.

Whitehurst and Chingos characterize College Scorecard as a “kludge” — a solution cobbled together with the tools at hand, to get around limitations imposed by Congress. The best way to track students through college and into the workplace, they say, would be to assign a unique number to every student that’s linked to their education and workplace records.

But lawmakers — in part because of privacy concerns, but also because of opposition from some circles of the higher education industry — in 2008 prohibited the federal government from employing such a “unit record system.”

So College Scorecard attempts to merge data from three sources: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), and IRS tax records submitted by schools for each student.

The FAFSA and NSLDS “were designed to qualify students for grants and loans … and to carry out monitoring and compliance functions with respect to federal student loans,” Whitehurst and Chingos say. “These systems were not designed with the prospect that they would be used to track individual students into the labor market and tie their success to the institutions that prepared them.”

Whitehurst and Chingos propose a simple solution that they say would do wonders for improving College Scorecard’s usefulness in assessing student outcomes: Add two new fields to the IRS Form 1098T that schools already submit for every student who pays tuition.  One of the new fields would indicate whether or not the student has graduated, and the other would provide information on a student’s major.

“Institutions already have this information and are set up to report it to the U.S. Department of Education for all their students receiving federal aid,” Whitehurst and Chingos say. “It is a small step involving minimal burden to have them report it on the 1098T, which they already have to submit to the IRS for everyone.”

Because the College Scorecard data was published through an open application programming interface (API), a number of groups are building their own tools to crunch the numbers — in some cases mixing in their own data.

PayScale — which produces reports on salary data for alumni of a total of more than 1,500 colleges broken down by degree levels and major — says it will use College Scorecard data in its next College ROI Report, due out in March. PayScale has already published a “proof of concept” that includes a mix of public and private schools.


Matt Carter is the editor of Credible News, which provides information that consumers need to make decisions about student loans and personal finance. We welcome comments and tips. Email: mcarter@credible.com