By Jens Manuel Krogstad
DES MOINES, Iowa - Families hunting for colleges can now find financial information like cost, average student debt and loan default rates of individual institutions at a single federal website.
The College Scorecard is designed to help families figure out where to get "the most bang for your educational buck," said President Barack Obama, who talked about the scorecard at his State of the Union address Tuesday.
WEBSITE: The College Scorecard
The resource, launched Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education, is part of a broader push by the Obama administration to lower the cost of college as Americans increasingly worry about their ability to afford higher education.
Graduates in 2011 accumulated an average of $26,600 in student loan debt, up more than 5 percent from the year before, according to the Institute for College Access and Success in Washington, D.C.
The president, in his speech, pushed for measures of affordability and value that would factor into which colleges receive federal aid. He also warned Congress against some cuts to non-defense programs, among them higher education and university research.
The College Scorecard received mixed reviews Tuesday from parents, students and higher education experts.
The loan default rate is helpful because it shows the ability of graduates to repay what they borrow to earn a college degree, said Tom Delahunt, a vice president for admissions at Drake University in Des Moines. Students who don't find jobs or land only low-paying jobs upon graduation are more likely to struggle to repay loans, he said.
Taking steps to simplify information and increase transparency, in general, helps families through what is often a stressful time, Delahunt said.
"Anything that can help families wade through all the noise of the college search process is a good thing," he said.
Delahunt cautioned that some data on the website, in particular the net price of a college, are several years old. Universities, as a result, may have to explain to families why the prices they saw on the website is lower than the current costs, he said.
Data on wages for first jobs is a key missing piece of the website, said Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. The Obama administration said it plans to publish information on earnings potential in the coming year.
In addition, data on average debt and monthly repayments lack context, Schneider said.
"I don't know if a monthly payment of $500 is a lot or a little in relation to wages," he said.
The College Scorecard website also doesn't allow side-by-side comparisons of schools, said Schneider.
Jordan Bancroft-Smithe, student body president at the University of Northern Iowa, said he liked the ability on the website to enter a field of study, such as library science, and see which colleges in each state offer a degree in that discipline.
Bancroft-Smithe, a senior, said a tool like the College Scorecard would have simplified his college search, even if all the information isn't the most recently available.
"As long is it just one of several tools used, I think it's great," Bancroft-Smithe said.
His mother, Cynthia Bancroft of Waverly, said she found the college search process for her two sons stressful. Consolidating financial information at one website is a huge help, she said.
The part of their family's years-long college search that caused the most anxiety remains: Families don't know for certain what they'll pay until they apply to a college, she said.
"You don't really know how much you're going to pay until the very end when you submit financial aid forms, and that's when you have to make your decisions," Bancroft said.
Jens Manuel Krogstad also reports for The Des Moines Register