A Look Inside the College Scorecard’s Data

The U.S. Department of Education’s online college comparison tool, College Scorecard, was overhauled last fall to provide “a truer picture on college cost and value” using “reliable and unbiased information about college performance” so that families can “better understand the consequences and tradeoffs of their choices” via access to “never-before-released national data about post-college outcomes.” Yet the department noted “some important limitations in the data that should be kept in mind in their use.” Here are the most significant caveats that college representatives should be prepared to discuss with families.


Data source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

Includes: Only first-time, full-time students who receive federal financial aid

Definition of cost: Average net price is the full cost of attendance, including tuition (in-state only for public institutions) and fees, room and board, and books and supplies.

  1. Your institution’s dollar amount could appear high in relation to a competitor’s if the competitor does not enroll as high of a percentage of students who receive Pell grants, federal loans, or both (the national average is 70%). Students who receive neither are left out of the calculation, so if an institution has a high proportion of these no-need students (particularly if they do not receive much merit aid), then its overall net cost is probably higher than reported here because including those students as well would likely raise its average. Separately, if the competitor is a public institution with a high proportion of out-of-state students, its overall net cost is probably higher than reported here since only the net cost for in-state students is calculated here. A third factor could be the difference in cost of living dictated by the locations of the institutions, since the calculation is based on full cost of attendance.
  1. The average cost figure for family incomes higher than $110,000 could be misleadingly low here if your institution enrolls a high proportion of no-need families, since they are not included in this calculation.
  1. This is a link to your institution’s net price calculator (on your own website).

Financial Aid & Debt

Data source: National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) and IPEDS

Includes: Only federal borrowers and grant recipients

  1. This is the percentage of an institution’s borrowers who have not defaulted on their federal loans and who have made progress in paying down their loans within three years of leaving the institution.
  1. As the percentage of the institution’s undergraduates who received federal loans in a given year (although it does not include any Parent PLUS loans taken out on their behalf), this data point is affected by the extent to which students both apply for and are eligible to receive federal loans.
  1. This dollar amount (which does not include debt from private student loans or Parent PLUS loans) measures the accumulated amount of federal loan debt at the point of graduation from the institution.
  1. Derived from the figure above it, this assumes repayment over a 10-year period at a 6% interest rate—although the federal student loan interest rate for new direct loans to undergraduates is currently lower than that. 

Graduation & Retention

Data source: IPEDS

Includes: Only first-time, full-time students (excludes transfer students, part-time students, and students who do not start during the fall)

  1. Rather than a four-year graduation rate, this percentage represents students who earn a bachelor’s degree within six years from the institution where they first enrolled. Your institution is probably not getting credit for starting students who go on to graduate elsewhere, and almost certainly not for graduating students who started elsewhere.
  1. This is the percentage of students (first-time, full-time only) who return to your institution for their sophomore year—and it seems fairly straightforward!

Earnings After School

Data source: Cross-references earnings data from administrative tax records maintained by the U.S. Department of the Treasury with NSLDS data on federal borrowers and grant recipients

Includes: Only federal borrowers and grant recipients, who left your institution for any reason (not just because they graduated) and are not currently enrolled anywhere (such as in graduate school)

Definition of earnings: The sum of wages and deferred compensation from all W-2 forms received for each individual plus self-employment earnings from Schedule SE

  1. This takes as its baseline an earnings level of $25,000, which is the approximate median wage of workers ages 25 to 34 with only a high school diploma. The percentage notes the share of your institution’s federal-aid-receiving former students who are earning more than that amount six years after they first enrolled. Your institution’s percentage could appear low in relation to a competitor’s if a substantial portion of your former students are engaged in unpaid labor (i.e., volunteer work), since those with zero annual earnings are included.
  1. This is the average among those with positive yearly earnings (so unpaid volunteers are not a drag on this number) 10 years after they first enrolled at your institution. The main reason this figure will seem low for any institution is because it does not include the earnings of those who had no financial need as students. And a reason your institution’s figure could appear low in relation to a competitor’s is if your instituion enrolls a greater proportion of your students in academic programs that feed low-paying career fields.

Source: https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/documentation/