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Obama unveils long-awaited college scorecard

The Obama administration on 12 September unveiled its long-awaited college scorecard, designed to help students and parents make informed decisions about the cost and value of attending a particular institution.

The much-anticipated scorecard is a watered-down version of the plan promoted two years ago, when President Barack Obama asked the Education Department to develop a ratings system that had the potential to embarrass colleges that received low scores and put at risk their eligibility to receive federal student aid money.

The scorecard unveiled on Saturday instead is a searchable database that provides information on factors that might help prospective students decide where to apply and enrol. Those include costs, graduation rates and student debt levels at graduation.

Perhaps its most controversial metric has to do with incomes for graduates. Drawing from Internal Revenue Service data, the database includes the median earnings of former students 10 years after they entered school. (The data are limited to those students who received federal aid.)

"Everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value – like whether they’re likely to graduate, find good jobs and pay off their loans," Obama said in his weekly radio address.

Even so, higher education lobbying groups found much to fault. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, for example, questioned the usefulness of median salaries by institution, suggesting that programmatic-level comparisons would be more meaningful. The group also expressed disappointment in the process by which the scorecard was developed, noting a "lack of transparency and external consultation and review".

"We strongly support the purposes motivating this initiative, but we are concerned that neither the process nor this first version of its product adequately accomplishes the Administration’s lofty and laudable goals," the group said in a statement.

In his radio speech, Obama suggested the scorecard was an improvement over existing rankings, which he said reward prestige and encourage colleges to game the system. The formula for US News & World Report annual rankings, for example includes an institution's "undergraduate academic reputation" based on a national survey of higher education officials.

But Obama said a scorecard focused on affordability and support for all students makes better sense, particularly at a time when the vast majority of jobs require some higher education.

"The country with the best-educated workforce in the world is going to win the 21st century economy," Obama said. "I want that to be America."

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