US Government’s College Scorecards Plagued by Poor Design

Before College Scorecards — a tool highly-touted by the White House — can help high school students make informed decisions about their education, those high school students need to be able to understand them. And according to a new study out of the Center for American Progress and authored by Julie Margetta Morgan and Gadi [...]

Before College Scorecards — a tool highly-touted by the White House — can help high school students make informed decisions about their education, those high school students need to be able to understand them. And according to a new study out of the Center for American Progress and authored by Julie Margetta Morgan and Gadi Dechter, they do not.

The scorecards, which list such information as total cost of attendance, graduation rates, the average debt load carried by students — along with the potential earnings of those who graduate with a degree — are supposed to make it easier for potential applicants to get the full picture, all in a format that is consistent from school to school. Yet when four focus groups of high school seniors and juniors were asked their opinion on the new format, they were decidedly unimpressed.

According to the authors, the students welcome the idea of the scorecards, but found them confusing and not laid out in a way that makes the information provided easy to absorb and analyze. This is not an uncommon problem for disclosure statements required by the government.

Unfortunately this is typical of many disclosures government agencies require in the hopes of improving consumer choice. (CAP has previously written about a similar problem with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent revamp of disclosures that money managers must provide to prospective clients.) Without consumer testing, disclosures risk being overlooked and misunderstood.

This is why among the recommendations made in the report included the call for all such disclosures, and the scorecard in particular, to be designed by professional graphics artists and fieldtested by actual students prior to deploying them widely.

When one of the students participating in the focus group was asked for an opinion after looking at a sample of the card that had gone through several preliminary drafts, she said that it looked like “a bill.” Other students expressed similar sentiments, saying that they weren’t sure exactly what they were looking it.

As the authors conclude, it is unlikely that after such reaction that any of the students would ever make use of the card in the way it is supposed to be used.

The report also makes several suggestions on improvement of the government’s disclosure policies in general, but dedicates most of the space to proposing ways in which the scorecards could be substantially improved.

The scorecard should include an introductory description, name, or logo that immediately communicates its purpose.

The government should develop alternative measures of student debt that matter to students if further testing confirms that traditional measures such as repayment rate or default rate are not meaningful to students.

The government should develop alternative measures of student debt that matter to students if further testing confirms that traditional measures such as repayment rate or default rate are not meaningful to students.

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