In an editorial last month, The New York Times encouraged students and their families to use the Department of Education's new online College Scorecard as a shopping guide. We wish we shared the Times's optimism about this new tool, but the cost information in the scorecard is no more useful to an individual student than the much maligned sticker price published in the college catalog. In addition, the measures the new scorecard uses to provide information to students can be gamed by colleges in ways that disadvantage middle-class families.
The first statistic on the scorecard is the average net cost of attendance. This measure seems easy to understand, until you realize that it is misleading for many students. The scorecard's net-cost measure is "the average yearly price actually charged to first-time, full-time undergraduate students receiving student aid [emphasis ours] at an institution of higher education after deducting such aid." At many institutions, students from relatively high-income families find out that they qualify for little or no aid. For them, this average-net-price score is quite useless. The sticker price offers better information.
Likewise, many students from poorer families will discover that they qualify for enough grant aid that the net cost to them is quite low, even at very expensive institutions. These students will find the scorecard measure a frightening overestimate of what they would be charged. Many may choose seemingly less expensive colleges, forgoing the opportunity to attend "pricey" ones that would actually be excellent matches for them.
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