The New College Scorecard: Needed & Welcomed, But Can Score Higher

Sep 25, 2015 in Blog

In a long-anticipated move, President Obama announced a new College Scorecard to better inform prospective students’ college choices. According to some estimates, 41 percent of students say they can’t find enough helpful information to make their college decisions. Our own work with low-income students revealed that in the absence of easy, useful information about college options, students often choose using the availability heuristic: Where did my cousin go? Where are my classmates looking? Additionally, the difficulty of performing a thorough, rigorous search certainly contributes to the problem of “undermatching,” whereby half of all low-income students attend a college that is not a good fit for their academic ability, and likely to be more expensive and offering fewer resources.

What makes choosing colleges such a minefield? Imagine you’re a high school senior thinking about going to college. You probably already have some ideas in your mind of schools you might consider even before you start Googling, reading magazine rankings or accessing online resources. These schools might be the ones closest to where you grew up, where you have friends already, or whose ads you’ve seen on TV.

These criteria are unlikely to get most students matched with the best college for them. Low-income students in particular—for whom the financial stakes are higher—should ideally prioritize a school’s graduation rate, its financial resources-per-student ratio, and the expected earnings of its graduates. But the fact is that there are thousands of colleges and universities in America that might be right for any given applicant, and people need a way of narrowing these options down. According to the well-studied phenomenon of choice conflict, being faced with many options can be demotivating and often results in people walking away from the choice itself rather than accept the risk of choosing poorly. With colleges, the only thing worse than choosing the “wrong” college is not choosing any college at all.

To deal with the complexity of tough choices, our brains rely on things that help us narrow down options to a manageable set, even if we know in the back of our minds that these criteria—such as where our cousin went—aren’t really what matters about going to college. Plenty of psychology research shows that, once people have come to see a certain option as the “status quo”, it’s very hard for them to broaden their horizons and consider new options.

Enter the College Scorecard, a tool intended to re-focus college choices on the criteria that truly matter, broadening the options prospective students consider without turning them away from the process entirely.

The move mirrors several initiatives the Obama administration has spearheaded to make high-stakes choices easier for American consumers. Healthcare.gov, the federally maintained web-based health insurance exchange is the most prominent example. Such resources attempt to make choosing between thousands of obscure options that differ, on the surface, very little from each other, clearer for consumers. And though Healthcare.gov had a famously rocky start, it has enrolled nearly 10 million people in plans to date.

So how does the scorecard score in actually helping students choose? Very high, but with a few crucial opportunities for improvement.

Currently, the default sorting mechanism for searches using the tool is by “percent earning over high school grads”. In theory, this is helpful, as it makes institutions that help their students achieve high earnings more salient. However, the net effect of this default sort is that students are most likely to see elite institutions and specialty schools (like pharmaceutical and nursing programs), which aren’t likely to be a fit for the majority of students.

In the words of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Scorecard is meant to help students “know if their investment of resources and hard work in college is going to pay off.” But instead of any single indicator that directly measures payoff, visitors to the site must do some more complex analysis themselves, using graduation rates, 10-year graduate earnings, after-aid costs, Pell grant recipient rates, and others. These are useful measures.

But how many 17-year-olds or working adults aiming to return to school will put in the time and effort to understand these metrics and consider them side-by-side? It may prove more effective to provide simple heuristics instead.

Additionally, the new Scorecard’s presentation of colleges in an easy-to-understand format aims to make choices more comparable. But despite the engaging format, it’s possible that the sheer number of options that appear in the search results may cause more indecision and aversion for users. To reach its potential, the Scorecard needs to both reset users’ priorities with simple criteria that matter for their future, and make it easier to narrow down the field.

The biggest challenge to the success of the Scorecard might be the simplest one – will students and parents use it? Healthcare.gov is useful because it provides a channel for people to actually get health insurance – the College Scorecard does not double as the Common Application.

Clearly there are hurdles to overcome for every innovation. But momentum is building for government-sponsored platforms that responsibly combine data and insights on human behavior to make choices easier.

Just this past week, the White House announced the first set of results from the ideas42-supported Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. With an already long list of accomplishments, the SBST has shown the value of the government’s use of behavioral insights to encourage consumer choices that benefit society at large.

The College Scorecard is yet another potential opportunity for massive impact on the American college choice landscape. We applaud the administration’s new initiative, and look forward to more behavioral innovation in the future.