South Dakota State University may be outdoing the University of South Dakota in terms of lower cost and higher graduation rates.
Or they may not. According to USD administrators, a newly launched online tool aimed at helping students choose a college may actually be misleading them.
The “College Scorecard” is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s newly implemented online College Affordability and Transparency Center.
Students use the Scorecard to compare institutions around the country based on factors like cost of attendance, graduation rate and loan default rate. Students can search for colleges by name or select factors important to them, such as state, size, degree or campus setting, and find corresponding schools.
USD Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Chuck Staben said although he was confident the Scorecard reported accurate numbers, the tool was nonetheless flawed.
“These tables are actually somewhat misleading, even though everything on them is correct,” Staben said.
Staben pointed to the reported costs of attending institutions and said the “real cost of college is a very individual question.”
He suggested the numbers reported by the Scorecard may deter students from exploring their options at schools where they might actually get lower tuition than the Scorecard indicates.
Staben also questioned the reported graduation rates, using the example of South Dakota State University and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
SDSU reached a fairly high 59.7 percent graduation rate, particularly compared to USD’s 46.9 percent.
Staben said he was unsurprised at SDSU’s slightly higher graduation rate because some of the programs it offers, such as engineering, attract a significant group of students more qualified in math, which he deemed a “primary barrier to graduation.”
Staben mentioned the “surprisingly low” 47.7 percent graduation rate at SDSMT, which attracts even more math-oriented students than SDSU, had less to do with drop-outs and more with transfers.
“A significant number of students will go to a school like Mines and go ‘I want to be an engineer,'” Staben said. “Then after a year they go, ‘Wow, I don’t want to be an engineer, and it turns out I’m at an engineering school.’ They will leave that school and go somewhere else. They may be graduating from college somewhere at quite a high rate, but they may not be graduating from School of Mines.”
Staben said USD’s reported graduation rate on the Scorecard was one year out of date, and in the past year it had climbed to 48.2 percent.
USD Financial Aid Director Julie Pier said although she thought the Scorecard was a “starting point,” she questioned the consistency, clarity and how up to date some of the numbers were.
“Part of the problem with this is that what’s behind it is very confusing,” Pier said. “It’s become so confusing that it’s hard to understand.”
Pier said comparing the cost of schools could be tricky, saying it may be difficult to compare state schools in South Dakota, which charge students on a per-hour basis, with other schools in the country that charge a flat rate per semester.
“My recommendation to everybody is take a look at this information, and then contact the school you’re interested in,” Pier said. “Ask them to clarify the numbers or ask for additional information.”
Pier said the Scorecard was the result of a government effort to protect families from “less scrupulous” schools that do not help break down college costs for students, or make them understand “the real cost of college.”
Jeff Baylor, USD’s vice president of Marketing, Enrollment and Student Services, said the university has always let students know what they were paying for, but they are making additional efforts to help families understand the cost of attending USD the same way the Scorecard does.
“We are aware that this process can be confusing for families,” Baylor said. “We’re taking an extra step to try and educate them, and explain a little bit further what these numbers represent.”
Pier added that USD was “working hard” to help families understand the process.
“We want them to understand what they are writing their checks for,” she said.
Staben said that while analytical tools could be helpful, he advised students to avoid making decisions on where to attend school based on the College Scorecard without further educating themselves on the data it offers.
“We’re not really comparing apples to oranges when comparing one school to another,” Staben said. “And that’s one of the problems with the entire College Scorecard database.”