6 Ways the College Scorecard Can Help You Pick the Right School

 July 1, 2022
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With nearly 6,000 colleges and universities to consider, finding the ideal school can be time-consuming and overwhelming. Fortunately, the Department of Education’s interactive College Scorecard tool can simplify the process.

With a few clicks, you can compare as many schools as you like, using a variety of college ranking metrics, such as overall costs, location, population, available majors, graduation statistics and more.

To learn how College Scorecard data can let you compare colleges as well as recent changes to this useful tool, let’s look at the following topics:

How to use the College Scorecard

The College Scorecard lets you compare data on all two-year and four-year schools across the U.S., and it’s fairly easy to explore. It’s also completely free — you won’t even need to create an account.

Not only can you see essential stats on test scores and retention rates, you’ll also gain insight into financial aid, average net costs, student demographics, starting salaries for graduates and the average student loan debt upon graduation.

Here are some search features to look at:

  • General: One of the easiest ways to get started is to click on the “search” button, located on the homepage’s upper right corner. It’ll automatically display a long list of schools, which you can filter by entering specific details on the left of the page.
  • Schools: You’ll see this option directly above the navigation bar. Enter a specific school’s name and instantly view its main statistics, such as graduation rate, average annual cost and median earnings for graduates. Hit the “View more details” button to dive into deeper data.
  • Fields of study: Also located above the navigation bar is an option to enter your desired major and see available schools. (It’s important to note that the listings are based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), and may not correspond with a school’s specific program title.)
  • Show me options: A third option above the navigation bar will bring up check boxes allowing you to more easily filter for your preferences, including for “schools near me” or institutions where “most people get in” (meaning an acceptance rate above 50%). You can also select schools that have the type of degree you’re interested in.
  • Compare: You can add any of the potential schools that come up to your “compare list” — just look for the gray check mark on each school’s listing. Once you’ve chosen some, click on the green school icon at the top-right of the screen, and a comparison chart will break down the schools and fields of study based on average annual cost, graduation rates and other factors.

Although you can search through a wide variety of data, here are the most common factors to focus on:

1. Net costs
2. Program, location and size
3. Total student loan debt
4. Average alumni salary
5. Graduation and retention rates
6. Test scores, programs and student body demographics

Net costs

A school’s average net price is calculated by adding the expected “cost of attendance” — tuition, books and supplies, living costs and other fees — then subtracting the average grants and scholarships previous students received at that school. The final figure is your general expected cost.

The College Scorecard also shows estimated costs based on family income level, so you’ll see one price for families making less than $30,000, another price for those with income of $30,001 to $48,000 and so on.

Although these numbers might not exactly match your net price, they still offer valuable insight into what you can expect. In addition to the College Scorecard tool, make sure to visit your potential schools’ financial aid website and use any tools there to get a more detailed estimate of your likely total costs.

You might also reach out directly to financial aid officers for a more in-depth look at their school’s financial requirements. And remember to apply for as many scholarships as you can, since those awards can greatly reduce your out-of-pocket costs.

Program, location and size

If you have any specifics in mind, the College Scorecard can help you narrow your search. For example, you can create a tailored list of small colleges with less than 2,000 undergraduates that are within a 100-mile radius of your home.

Here are examples of ways to optimize your searches:

  • Type of school and degree
  • College program
  • Location
  • Size of school
  • Specialized mission or religious affiliation

Of course, if you already have some schools in mind, you can still enter them by name into the search field.

And if you’re not sure what you’re looking for in terms of program, size or location, you can move on to the next step to compare schools by other metrics.

Total student loan debt

Another feature that makes the College Scorecard an essential tool is its data on how much debt the average student has upon graduation.

For each school, you can see what percentage of students received student loans, as well as the median amount of debt and monthly payment after leaving school.

However, you can only read so much into this information. Everyone’s situation is different, and the amount you may need to borrow will depend on your specific financial aid package, scholarship awards and whether you’re able to juggle a decent-paying job while in college.

Plus, it’s important to remember that these statistics only represent federal student loans. They don’t tell you how much students owe in private student loans — though note that private loans make up less than 10% of all outstanding student debt, so omitting them shouldn’t skew the results too much.

Average alumni salary

For each school, you can see how much a graduate who received federal financial aid would typically make 10 years after they first entered school.

While this data is interesting, it might not be particularly relevant for you. Although the school you attend might have some impact on your future salary, the major you choose could end up being more relevant.

On the other hand, having that median salary figure can at least get you thinking about the return on investment (ROI) for your degree, as well as the list of college majors that may lead to the lowest salaries.

Graduation and retention rates

The graduation rate shows how many full-time students matriculated within six years at a four-year college, or within three years at a two-year college. The retention rate, meanwhile, shows how many first-time, full-time students returned after their first years.

Although these rates don’t necessarily reflect a school’s overall success, it’s still worth taking into consideration. For example, some of the top U.S. universities have a graduation rate of 95.2% or higher.

Therefore, if you see a particularly low graduation or retention rate, this could be a red flag that the school doesn’t provide sufficient support for their students.

Test scores, programs and student body demographics

While the College Scorecard is unique for its insight into costs, debt and post-graduation salaries, it also has the typical data points you would expect from other well-known college comparison sites.

For instance, you can see the average SAT and ACT test scores of accepted students (although note that some schools are considering phasing out admissions tests). You can also check out student body demographics, including information on racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Plus, you can see the most popular academic programs, and whether the school is accredited.

All this information will hopefully help you find a school that meets your academic and lifestyle goals, and also falls within your budget.

Recent updates to the college scorecard data

The College Scorecard originally rolled out in 2013 and has seen some changes over its history. Specifically, it implemented the following changes in February 2022:

  • Median earnings for alumni: Featured prior to 2018, this has now been reinstated to optimize your findings.
  • Diploma versus degree earnings: You can now see the percentage of college graduates who earn more than high school graduates.
  • Federal student loan repayment rates: Annual updates will reflect the most current loan rates, in addition to each school’s cumulative debt statistics.

More tools to help choose the right college

When making your prospective college list, the College Scorecard can be an indispensable tool. Since it’s a Department of Education site, it has financial aid and student debt data straight from the source.

But it’s definitely not the only place to find information about prospective colleges. Try out other sources as well, such as the Big Future tool offered by the College Board, or the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator.

It’s also important to explore the websites of any school you’re considering. You can also do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure the rewards are worth the time, effort and money involved. You might even decide to explore alternatives to college, such as a trade school or apprenticeship.

In the end, doing the research, reaching out to colleges and even touring campuses, will put you one step closer to finding the right educational path for your future.

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