College Scorecard Aids Students in School Selection

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COURT HOUSE - When the College Scorecard was first implemented by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in 2013, it was presented as a way to give a quick and intuitive “snapshot of an institution’s cost and value,” a tool to aid students and families involved in the complex college selection process.

The early versions of the scorecard were limited in scope and usefulness. The newest version, recently released by DOE, is more robust, intending to provide a more comprehensive picture of potential value for the cost. The scorecard is available at https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/.

Below is a look at the tools available within the college scorecard to help prospective students and families who are considering college options, as well as an illustration of some of the data available on Cape May County’s only post-secondary institution, Atlantic Cape Community College.

The Scorecard

The college scorecard offers several ways to explore thousands of post-secondary institutions across the nation. Institutions can be located by name, proximity to one's home address, by state, by selectivity levels, by cost and by successful graduation rates. 

Students can mix and match criteria through a custom search option. Once located, schools of interest can be marked for side-by-side comparison.

Students can use the scorecard to explore individual institutions across variables of cost, average student debt levels, fields of study, graduation rates, selectivity and earning power of graduates with specific degrees in specific fields of study.

Initial data shows the basic attributes of the institution in terms of size, public vs. private, rural, urban or in between, and successful graduation rates.

The tool then allows students to drop down into the data to look at first-year retention rates, number of students receiving financial aid, median debt levels of graduates, as well as the likely monthly payments a graduate would have to make against that level of debt.

The student body can be viewed in terms of racial, socio-economic and ethnic diversity, full-time and part-time percentages and undergraduate vs. graduate student numbers.

Students can evaluate the likelihood of their acceptance with a look at selectivity data on average test scores and acceptance rates.

One of the new elements of the scorecard is a chance to see the earning power of specific degrees. The data available includes the median earnings of graduates one year after graduation. 

Students perusing the earnings data for Stockton University will find that a bachelor’s degree in registered nursing provides median earnings, one year after graduation, of $69,600. A student who chose to graduate with a degree in criminology would be looking at median earnings of $28,600. 

The 319 graduates who elected to pursue business administration earn about $38,600, while those in visual and performing arts are shown to be earning about $22,000 after one year.

The ability of the scorecard to present median earnings data is dependent on institutions reporting on student completion programs, and for some institutions, that data is incomplete; however, as more students and families use the scorecard, the incentive for institutions to refine their data should grow.

Going beyond the comparison data, the scorecard website also offers links that let students explore alternatives to college. Users of the website can also explore apprenticeship opportunities by location. 

One link allows the user to begin to explore career options and occupations based on skills, interest and education. This career search is also informed by federal labor statistics, which indicate the future outlook for specific career paths.

Atlantic Cape and State Community Colleges

New Jersey has 19 public community colleges across its 21 counties. They range in size from just under 13,000 students at Bergen Community College, to the much smaller 896-student body at Salem Community College.

Atlantic Cape is among the smallest of the state’s community colleges. The scorecard lists it at 5,191 undergraduate students, placing it 15th in size among the 19 institutions.

Community colleges can be starting points or end points in an individual’s education plan. For some, the community college is an inexpensive route to a four-year degree, an opportunity to gain those first two years of credit at a reduced price, perhaps near home to reduce costs even more. 

For others, community college can be a place to acquire career credentials, often sought by individuals already in the workplace facing hurdles to advancement.

Typically, the community college, often with an open admission policy, will enroll students who range widely in their preparation for college level work and who may be burdened with work and family responsibilities. 

A look at community college statistics will show lower graduation rates than typical four-year institutions. The same is true for comparisons across a variety of input and output measures. Even so, the scorecard allows students to compare New Jersey’s community colleges to each other.

The accompanying table shows some scorecard data for New Jersey’s 19 public community colleges. The table lists colleges in order of reported enrollment. Some definitions will make the table easier to understand.

Full-time is the percentage of the student body attending as full-time students. 

First-year retention is the percentage of students who returned to enroll in the second year after entry.

The graduation rate is the percentage of students who graduated within eight years after first enrolling.

In this table, median salary is limited to earnings by graduates who elected the liberal arts or general studies concentration. The earnings are after one year from graduation. 

With the scorecard, interested students can see earnings data that corresponds to many other fields of study at other schools.  For example, graduates with nursing degrees from Union Community College show median earnings of $69,000 after one year.  However, for Atlantic Cape, only earnings data for the general studies graduates is reported.  So, to make comparisons more meaningful, tabulated data reflects only median salaries for this area of study at these colleges.

Compared to the median, Atlantic Cape has a lower enrollment, lower ratio of full-time students, lower percentage for first-year retention, lower eight-year graduation rate, lower median salary, but a higher average annual cost.

Among liberal arts and general studies graduates, Atlantic Cape graduates report the lowest median salary. Restricting the salary data to this area of study might be expected to influence the apparent college performance. General studies graduates, if they do not continue to a four-year school (23% of graduates transfer at Atlantic Cape), may enter the workforce without specific skills. 

A better comparison would be to see how graduates from the nursing or business programs do in comparison to other community colleges, but that data was not reported for Atlantic Cape.

Here, we merely compare New Jersey’s community colleges with Cape May County’s only branch campus. Comparisons are most meaningful in the context of a specific student’s interests and circumstances.

All comparisons will become more useful as the scorecard continues to evolve, and as the quantity and quality of institutions’ self-reported data improves.

Already, the scorecard has earned a place in the network of information available to help prospective students and families make college decisions.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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