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What's College Worth? Federal Scorecard Raises Questions

Hartwick College is a private, liberal arts school in Oneonta, New York.

The federal government’s new College Scorecard is out, and it’s stirring debate on some campuses. It's a slick website that makes finding data on higher education institutions easy, but one of the metrics has some schools worried.

Fire up the scorecard on your computer, or your phone, and you can search for a college by name. The page for each campus lists cost, retention and graduation rates, demographics and other data – including how much money students make after graduation. That last statistic, called “return on investment”, troubles Michael Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum is the provost at Hartwick College in Oneonta.

“The “return” in return on investment should transcend how much money students make and include, for example, how graduates are making their communities and the world a better place,” he says.

The return on investment statistic measures average student income ten years after graduation. Hartwick is a liberal arts college, which means less emphasis on a single career path. Tannenbaum says they focus on writing, critical thinking, and ethics, too. His claim is a common one among these schools: return on investment means more than a paycheck.

“It would be great if we could somehow capture all of that to also present to the public on a scorecard,” he says.

In his announcement, President Obama said the financial information will help students make the right decision.

“There are colleges dedicated to helping students of all backgrounds learn without saddling them with debt,” he said. “We should hold everybody to that standard.”

The scorecard replaces a college rating system that Obama had planned to release earlier this year. That system drew criticism for being too simplistic. In its announcement, the White House said the scorecard data will let students rank schools according to their own personal priorities.