What We Don’t Know About Debt

On the new "college scorecard," a proposed federal tool intended to give a one-page picture of a college's tuition prices and financial aid policies, one factor is considered crucial — and unavailable.

Students should consider the average debt per student at graduation, the department wrote. But that box on the scorecard contains only a note — "We don't have this information yet" — that encourages students to seek it out themselves.

Student debt has been a hot topic lately, both in the 2012 presidential race and in national news media, most recently in a high-profile (and hotly contested) New York Times article that highlighted colleges with high levels of debt nationwide. But pieces of information crucial to understanding the problem fully, especially  how much students borrow at each college, are unavailable — and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

The lack of readily accessible, accurate information about borrowing at specific colleges means that prospective students can’t use the information in their decisions about whether or not to apply. It also makes it more difficult for colleges to compare their own students' indebtedness with that of students at other institutions — a process that some say might lead to changes in financial aid policy at colleges where students carry an abnormally high debt load.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, whose Project on Student Debt evaluates colleges based on the available information about indebtedness, which is provided voluntarily by colleges participating in the Common Data Set. “We’re going with the best we’ve got. Making this information public is part of what helps push the conversation forward.”

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