Four Ways Higher Ed Must Respond to the New College Scorecard

The Federal Government's new college scorecard means higher education institutions must change the way they present information on their website. Here are four things to do first.

In his weekly address to the nation on September 12, President Barack Obama unveiled his new College Scorecard, a long-promised consumer evaluation tool for colleges and universities.

“Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education,” Obama said in his address. “You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans – which will help all of us see which schools do the best job of preparing America for success.”

The scorecard tool allows you to search by program, degree type (two-year or four-year), location, size, type (public or private), mission (e.g. historically black), or religious affiliation. You can also navigate directly to a specific institution.

A school’s profile page includes information such as:

  • Average annual cost (net price for federal financial aid recipients - this is also broken down by family income bracket), noting whether it is at, below, or above the national average

  • Percentage of students paying down debt, noting whether the rate is at, below, or above the national average

  • Percentage of students receiving federal loans

  • Typical total debt and monthly loan payment

  • Graduation and retention rates

  • Salary after attending (10 years post graduation), noting whether it is at, below, or above the national average

  • Percentage of students earning more than those who only have a high school diploma

  • Student body population (number and full- vs. part-time) and demographics (socio-economic and race/ethnicity)

  • Average SAT and ACT scores

  • Available areas of study and most popular programs

The emphasis of this scorecard is in line with the increased market focus on educational outcomes and ROI. But what does the introduction of this tool mean for you, as a digital owner for your institution?

The profile page for an institution within the scorecard tool does not provide a school-specific call to action. So, if someone discovers your school via this tool, you can bet their next stop will be Google.

As students and families begin incorporating this tool into their research process, here are some things to keep in mind:

Emphasize Outcomes

If you’re not doing it already, be sure you are communicating about student outcomes. It’s no longer enough to describe your program and campus offerings in enthusiastic, inspirational detail - we need to convey, in concrete specifics, what students are getting out of what we give them.

Lots of institutions — like Earlham and Hamilton — have created top-level “Outcomes” pages that concisely make the case for the ROI of their respective educations. But the next step is to take outcome-related information (salary earnings, debt, graduate school and other academic outcomes, job placement and title, career satisfaction, and relevant fields, to name a few) and integrate it across relevant pages of your website. That means everywhere from the homepage to the admissions section to individual program pages.

Pull those postgraduate survey reports out of the fourth-level page where they languish in PDF prison and put the relevant statistics to work. If your institution is not currently collecting the data you think would be useful, work with your career services, institutional research, and or alumni relations office to figure out how to improve that process.

In addition, when talking to alumni for news stories or other purposes, ask questions that connect their current experience to the education they received at your institution. How did their time in school set them up for their current career or postgraduate trajectory? What lessons learned at your school do they still apply today? What faculty members, classes, clubs, or experiences shaped them the most? Drawing out these details can strengthen the relationship between the education you provide and the livelihoods that result.

Own Your Story

By virtue of it being a one-size-fits-all tool designed to accommodate a common set of information for a wide range of institutions, the scorecard has inevitable shortcomings. As we know from thinking about web analytics, numbers don’t mean much without context. The scorecard will inevitably exclude nuance, trends, and context that are essential to understanding what the reported numbers really mean. The president of Trinity Washington University spoke to NPR about how the scorecard could skew perceptions about an institution such as hers which lives outside of “traditional, national norms.”

It’s a good reminder to never abdicate the telling of your story to a third-party and to do a better job of storytelling on your own website. Don’t let people assume information or infer connections where there is otherwise an informational void. Establish accurate context and define relevant trends so prospective students and their families have a clear sense of who you are and if you are what they are looking for. And bring data to life with relevant stories that contextualize the facts about your institution with actual names, faces and experiences.

Expose Information about Cost and Aid

Some schools still try to bury or obfuscate information about cost and aid, often because they are self-conscious about how expensive they are or how much financial support they have to offer. But if students enroll (and we want them to enroll), they’ll have to confront the cost eventually, right? Better to be upfront and clear about both the cost and available aid than unintentionally mislead or misinform a prospect.

The scorecard provides a lot of numbers and data, but it lacks the context and support that comes from student stories, a warm, friendly voice and tone, clear and concise copy that breaks down complex application processes and requirements, up-to-date scholarship information, and more. Only you can provide that.

Clean up Your Digital Doormat

If I search for your institution via Google or Bing, what does the SERP (search engine results page) tell me? Are the title and meta description clear and meaningful? Do any additional links show up with the top result, and if so, are they appropriate? If a map generates, is it showing the proper campus location? Is the contact info correct? (I’ve seen multiple institutions with the wrong phone number showing up in Google, much to the consternation of all parties involved.)

Ensure that all of these details are accurate and appropriate, as these small bits of text may be the first touch a prospective student has with your institution.