When it comes to important decisions in a young person’s life, picking the right college (for both educational and financial reasons) ranks right at the top. So it makes sense to do some research beyond the rankings from the folks at U.S. News & World Report.
That’s where President Barack Obama’s College Scorecard comes in, as he says, to help you discover “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” The U.S. Department of Education grades universities by alternative criteria like graduation and loan default rates, which are arguably more important than the number of Nobel Prize-winning professors a school employs.
Potential applicants might be interested to know, for example, that Harvard is the best deal for a top-10 school (the average student pays $14,445 annually) or that Columbia University in New York City has the highest loan default rate amongst all the Ivy League schools (2.9 percent, which is still far lower than national average of 14.7 percent).
“We know students and families are often overwhelmed in the college search process, but feel they lack the tools to sort through the information and decide which school is right for them,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says. “The College Scorecard provides a snapshot about an institution’s cost and value to help families make smart decisions about where to enroll.”
The site has drawn some criticism as being overly simplistic — it currently shows only four criteria — in grading something as intangible as the value of a liberal-arts education (although you can measure faculty degrees and student ratios). And others have called for data that would be directly relevant to at-risk students, like demographics and outcomes for racial minority, low-income or first-generation students.
Sure, the scores aren’t perfect, but the scorecard has started a conversation about college and affordability. It’s a start, providing plenty of interesting data. Here’s some findings we gleaned from the site, among the top 50 national universities:

  • Georgia Institute of Technology (#35) is offering the best deal on a four-year degree from a national university. The average net price (meaning the cost students pay after scholarships and grants are deducted) is $9,116. Four years at Georgia Tech will get you just one at the country’s most expensive school, New York University (#32), where the average net price is $37,656.
  • Harvard (#2) students, as you may expect, are most likely to don a cap and gown. They have the highest graduation rate — 97 percent — among the top colleges. Case Western Reserve University (#36) in Cleveland, on the other hand, has the lowest. Only 77.8 percent earn a diploma within six years.
  • Alumni from Duke University (#8), in Durham, N.C., generally have the smallest bill to worry about after graduation. Families typically borrow $8,000 in federal loans, which works out to a repayment schedule of about $92 per month over 10 years. High-priced New York University again bottoms out the list. Families take out an average of $32,090 in federal loans, which means they’ll be paying about $369 a month for a decade.
  • Graduates of Stanford University (#4), near Palo Alto, Calif., top the list in their ability to manage student loans. Only 0.7 percent default on their federal student loans within three years of beginning to pay them back. (No surprise, considering that Silicon Valley’s not too far away.) Happy Valley in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as lucrative. Eight percent of students from Penn State’s University Park campus (#48) default on their student loans.

Half a million unique visitors checked out the scorecard last year, but the government thinks it can reach an even wider audience: not just high schoolers and their families, but also nontraditional students older than the age of 25 (a demographic that accounts for half of all college students). Before next fall’s application season begins, the department plans to release long-promised data on employment rates and starting salaries, and there’s talk of eventually tying some of the federal government’s $150 billion in financial aid and state government’s $70 billion for public colleges to school performance.
Now more than ever, as unpaid student loans total an unbelievable $1.16 trillion, it’s a valuable tool to find a degree that’s worth more than just ink on paper.
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