In his weekly address, President Obama announced the launch of a new search tool designed to help students and parents find information on the nation's colleges and universities (Reuters)

This item has been updated.

The Obama administration announced Saturday that the federal government will start providing answers to one of the most pressing questions people ask when shopping for college: What is the typical income of alumni of a given school?

Through an interactive Web site called College Scorecard, families will be able to browse and compare colleges on metrics such as net price after financial aid, graduation rates and post-college earnings of students who received federal aid.

“Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education,” President Obama said in his weekly address. “You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans – which will help all of us see which schools do the best job of preparing America for success.”

The announcement culminates a two-year effort to disclose more information to help consumers navigate what can be a maddeningly confusing higher education market. In August 2013 at the University at Buffalo, Obama asserted that the government would rate colleges for the first time on measures of access and value.

This year, the administration dropped that idea after college leaders and others complained that it would be unfair for the government to pick winners and losers based on sometimes-flawed data. In June, officials said there would be no federal ratings.

[Obama administration retreats on ratings plan.]

But officials forged ahead with plans to give consumers more tools to rate schools themselves. Much of the information in the Scorecard is repackaged data that was previously available.

The metrics the administration chose to highlight could prove controversial. Graduation rates, for example, only measure the outcomes of first-time students who attend a college full-time. A large share of students at U.S. colleges don’t fit that description. There are signs, however, that colleges soon will be allowed to add links to the Scorecard to provide more information about transfer students and completion rates.

On earnings, the scorecard draws on Internal Revenue Service data to give insight into the post-college outcomes for students who received federal student aid — loans or grants. It does not count earnings of students who did not receive federal aid. Officials said about 70 percent of graduating students receive federal loans or Pell grants.

The earnings data are shown in two ways:

  • First, the percentage of students who earn more than the average high school graduate — about $25,000 a year — six years after entering college, regardless of whether the student completed the program. The theory is that this measure will shed light on whether a college is giving a substantial share of its students an economic boost in life, by enabling them to meet a minimal benchmark.
  • Second, the data show median annual earnings 10 years after students entered school, regardless of whether they completed a degree or certificate. It focuses on undergraduates, not students at graduate or professional schools. Ten years after starting college, officials reckoned, is long enough for most students to begin settling into a career.

Sample screenshots that the administration provided Friday evening show data for Minnesota colleges. Among them is Carleton College, a highly regarded liberal arts school.

Sixty-seven percent of students who attend Carleton earn more, on average, than people who only hold a high school diploma, one screenshot says. The median salary after attending Carleton is $46,100. That is above the national average of $34,343.


A screenshot of a search result from the new College Scorecard from the federal government.

The Scorecard also highlights new data on student loans: the share of borrowers who have begun paying down their principal within three years of leaving school. At Carleton, that repayment rate is 96 percent, above the national average of 67 percent.

Officials said they plan to share the data widely so that others can analyze it too.

Higher education leaders voiced some initial skepticism.

“There is widespread interest in having accurate data about the earnings of college graduates, and the revised College Scorecard being unveiled by the Department of Education is an attempt to respond to that demand,” Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement. “However, developing a system of this size and scope is a complicated and nuanced endeavor and the department has done so without any external review.

“Given what we believe are significant data limitations, this revamped Scorecard may or may not provide meaningful information to the students and families it was designed to help. For example, it appears the system only provides a single number for an entire institution regardless of whether a student studied chemical engineering or philosophy.”

That single number — median earnings — is inherently limited. Some colleges focus on producing engineers, others on schoolteachers or even rabbis. Even within the same fields, salaries vary widely by geography.

A search of the Scorecard for public universities with at least 2,000 undergraduates found that Colorado School of Mines had the highest median earnings for alumni ($74,700), followed by Georgia Tech ($74,000), University of Colorado-Denver ($73,800) and Missouri University of Science and Technology ($65,500). The University of Maryland at College Park ranked 11th in this group of 494 schools ($59,100), and the University of Virginia ranked 12th ($58,600).

Median alumni earnings for D.C. universities were: Georgetown, $83,300; George Washington, $64,500; American, $55,900; Catholic, $54,500; Trinity Washington, $52,100; Howard, $46,500; University of the District of Columbia, $36,200; and Gallaudet, $25,600.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the new Scorecard represents a step forward.

“We all know that there are far too many students who feel overwhelmed by the amount of information out there,” he told reporters. He said the initiative will provide “better tools and resources” to help students “find the college that best fits their unique talents.”