College Reality Check: Some Experts Weigh In On The Latest Tool for Families

There's no shortage of information when it comes to researching colleges -- guidebooks, email, college fairs, blogs, YouTube. In fact, there are so many new sites and tools -- College Score Card, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and their Shopping Sheet (this is a sample) -- that it can be hard to know what’s useful and what’s not. One of the newest tools on the table is College Reality Check, brought to you by a partnership between the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Gates Foundation. With 3600 colleges in its database, the tool aims to allow users to see how these institutions fare with regard to net price, graduation rates, debt rates and more.

We're big believers in information -- that is, good information. So we asked a group of college admission deans and high school college counselors to share their initial thoughts about the value of College Reality Check and how families can best employ the data this new tool provides. Read on to take advantage of their bird's eye view of this newest source of information:

Alice Kleeman, College Advisor, Menlo Atherton High School, Atherton, California

The Chronicle of Higher Education is an extremely reliable source, so I immediately trusted the College Reality Check (CRC) concept. Once on the site, I found it spoke to me in plain English—a relatively novel concept for college-finance-related web sites! And I found that the tool was easy and fun to use. I lost myself for a while in hypothetical situations with different family incomes and various college combinations.

I will be very likely to refer my students and their parents to this site as yet another arrow in their college/financial-aid quiver. However, as with the Fafsa4caster and the colleges' own net-price calculators, I will advise students and parents that this instrument, as well, should be regarded as one more tool to bring them closer to knowing what a college will cost—and I will caution them that only when the student has applied, applied for aid, been admitted, and been offered aid will the family know exactly how much an individual college will cost. So, as with the other useful tools, I hope families will not use this either to remove colleges from their list or to add colleges based on College Reality Check's information alone. Of course, if families learn from CRC that certain colleges are probably out of financial reach, to create an entire college list of those colleges would be foolish. But to use CRC's formula to make some initial comparisons and then to learn more from other sources is certainly a reasonable idea!

Pamela Horne, Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admissions, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

The new “College Reality Check” web tool produced by the Chronicle of Higher Education has good intentions, but its very simplicity is its downside.   It does not particularly offer any new or novel information.  Both the U.S. Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as new requirements and expectations of individual institutions, have gone before them.

One of its most profound limitations is that for public institutions it does not differentiate between state resident and nonresident students.  With tuition differentials that often exceed 300%, this is a serious flaw and renders the tool of no practical use for public institutions.

Even for private institutions, average net price and average debt are not very useful metrics for most families – unless of course you are that particular institution’s average – both financially and in level of academic preparation.  Average debt and average net price tell you much more about the make-up of the student body and the resources/discounts of the school than they tell a family what they will pay. Comparative Net Price Calculators (NPCs) would be much more useful and few states actually have those.   But I would always recommend that a family use the NPCs of the institutions under consideration.  They may not have a quick side-by-side on a web screen, but the information will be much more useful than an average net price.

Similarly, graduation rates and default rates have much more to do with the make-up of the student body and the academic preparation and work effort of the individual student than they have to do with the institution.  Setting aside those few institutions that truly exploit the most vulnerable and poorly prepared students, most colleges and universities provide decent-to-excellent instruction and service.  But open admissions colleges will inevitably have much lower graduation rates and much higher default rates.   As a matter of fact, default rates are not at all correlated with high cost – they are strongly associated with low completion because those who drop out of programs are far more likely to default.  But that is not to say that a well-prepared student cannot be extremely successful at an open admissions or less selective school – in fact, they may become  the campus super-star.  Students should ask about the graduation rates of students who are similar to themselves – that’s where the difference the institution makes counts.  Profound education can take place at highly selective institutions, but their 85%+ graduation rates are very strongly correlated to the academic credentials of their incoming students.

I’m not certain of the source of the data for average early career earnings – but that is probably the most useful data point on this site.  Showing monthly average loan payments in early career is also illustrative (although again – the limitations of averages should be made explicit).  The problem with average earnings, however, is that they do not take into account various majors and careers.   The best rule of thumb is that a student should not take out more total debt than what they expect their average starting salary to be – that will be a different amount for an actor vs. an engineer.

Overall – I would give the tool a C-.  

The proliferation of college search web sites is adding to the cacophony about this process.  We don’t need more.   For now, I’ll continue to recommend the Department of Education’s College Navigator and College Board’s Big Future as FAR more useful and providing more nuanced information, definition of terms and comprehensive advice.

Stephen Farmer, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I think it's great that students and parents are paying attention to net costs and graduation rates. I also think that tools like College Reality Check are useful in getting at this information. But I think it's important for people to remember that although these tools are getting better and better, they're still pretty crude -- axes, not scalpels. You can't do a lot of fine carving with them.

This isn't really the fault of the tools; it's a fault of statistics, or at least of means and medians and of other simple calculations that summarize large and heterogeneous groups.  The average net price may say something about a school's general commitment to keeping college affordable, especially in comparison with another school's general commitment. But it doesn't really say much about how either school would treat any individual student.  Even overall success rates don't help as much as people think; if the overall rate is 90 percent but Pell-eligible students graduate at a rate of 50 percent, and if you're a Pell-eligible student, the overall rate hides as much as it reveals.

Another factor is the significant difference between in- and out-of-state tuition at public universities like UNC. But I'm guessing that it's the Gates Foundation and the Chronicle of Higher Education, not the universities themselves that are choosing to base their calculations on in-state rates. It seems to me that it wouldn't be too hard for them to add residency to the mix, and in so doing to give out-of-state students a clearer picture. We certainly do as much with our own net-price calculator.

Aliza Gilbert, College Counselor, Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Illinois

While I haven’t had the opportunity to spend as much time on College Reality Check as I would like, my initial thoughts are that the site is very user friendly and explains the concepts of net price, graduation rate and debt repayment in easy to understand terms. The additional articles and links that they have selected to highlight are well chosen. However, while I love the idea of making college costs more transparent to families, I think this is just one of many resources that should be used. It is definitely not the be all and end all.

I did a search with 5 schools (Elmhurst College, Lake Forest College, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Chicago and Illinois State University) and used income of >$110,000. College Reality Check showed a net price range between $21,000 and $29,000. However, to get any scholarship information you would have to go to each school’s individual net price calculator, which I think some families might not do and might instead immediately rule out the school on the high end, which was Lake Forest. This would be most unfortunate as Lake Forest College offers a great deal of merit aid and for many families, it could have a final net price that is much lower than that of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Also, the tool's use of the word sticker price is problematic. It supports the "buying a car" analogy --for example, families refer to bargaining when dealing with financial aid offices and counselors have been known to say things like “why go private, just buy the car“– as if a college education and a car are the same thing.

I do like the graduation rate information, and although this can be found in other places, it is easy to understand in the way they have it laid out. The info about debt repayment is important but so much of debt repayment is tied to jobs after college (which is likely tied to major) and loan amounts. Are the results perhaps skewed positively by the engineer and business grads and negatively by the more “liberal arts” type majors? It would be interesting and perhaps more useful to see it all (income, default rates, job placement) broken out by major. Are anthropology majors making the same and defaulting at the same rate at all schools? With parents focused on outcomes, this would be a more useful tool.

I also think few people are aware of this tool. I know that most counselors are not. If counselors don’t know about it then parents are unlikely to know about it. I am still on the fence about whether this really adds to the info that is already out there in data obtainable through other sources, such as College Navigator.

Homer Turner, Guidance Counselor, Newton South High School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts

Families need more user friendly tools that deal with the financial fit of a post-secondary education. This tool from College Reality Check provides information in a constructive and skillful manner that allows for manipulative scenarios. But beware how it handles in-state versus out of state tuition pricing for public schools. 

It would also be helpful if the "Location" drop down tab under Find Colleges included regional choices -- such as New England, Midwest, West, South, Mid Atlantic, etc. -- so students and families could compare schools by region and not just state-by-state. As this tool evolves, it would be good to include Canadian and other international schools, which are becoming increasingly popular among New England students. But, overall, I like the functionality of the program and tool.


So, students and parents, as with all sources of information, you will need to use judgment in interpreting the data this tool provides. You will also need to look beyond any one tool or one source of information in order to get a full picture of your own unique circumstances and make a reasonable decision. As the statistician Nate Silver has said, "On average, people should be more skeptical when they see numbers. They should be more willing to play around with the data themselves."




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