Get a College Reality Check – Chronicle of Higher Ed Launches Insightful New Tool
May 2, 2013

The Chronicle of Higher Education can always be counted on for critical news on higher education, but now they’ve stepped up their info output and have developed a new tool to help parents and students make wiser choices when it comes to college selection. The Chronicle’s new tool is aptly named “College Reality Check” and was developed with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The tool has a database of 3,600 colleges and universities and will allow you to compare up to five institutions side by side.

College Reality Check aims to answer some of these questions:

1) Is the least expensive college the best deal if I don’t graduate in four years?
2) How does my monthly debt payment compare to my estimate earnings?
3) What are the chances I’ll default on my loan?

This launch comes on the heels of President Obama’s College Scorecard that has underwhelmed many critics. One of the criticisms of the Department of Education/White House initiative is limited functionality and promised information is not yet online despite the time that has elapsed since the launch.

We decided to compare the two tools to see if there’s a benefit of one over the other, if together they provide a fuller picture or if they are virtually identical. Here’s what we found:

#1 Ability to Compare Colleges  

College Reality Check allows you to compare up to five colleges at once while College Scorecard allows you to see only one school at a time. This will require you to print and look at a bunch of info side by side and seems like a real hassle. Winner: College Reality Check

#2 Accurate Cost of College

The College Scorecard displays one value for the net cost of college – and it’s an “average” cost. College Reality Check by comparison offers a drop down menu (where the red arrow indicates) with five different income ranges to choose from that then adjust the average college cost reflective of different financial awards you could likely be eligible for.

The middle tier of family income ($48,000-$75,000) shows roughly the same cost as the College Scorecard. That indicates to me that those earning less will see a price on the government’s site that is too high and those with parents earning in excess of $75,000 will see a price that’s lower than they would typically pay. Winner: College Reality Check

#3 Detailed Graduation Rate 

The College Scorecard displays a graduation rate percentage based on receiving a bachelor’s within six years with no details. In contrast, the College Reality Check offers a much more detailed glimpse into what percent of full-time students graduate.

College Reality Check includes data on graduation rates at four year, six year and eight year intervals. This is much more informative than the one piece of data the College Scorecard offers. Many parents want their children to get in and out of college quickly to keep costs in check. Knowing what percent complete their degrees in four years is very helpful information. Winner: College Reality Check

#4 Debt, Default and Earnings after College

Where College Reality Check has these three pieces of data in one chart together, the College Scorecard displays them separately and seems to offer additional information, but in reality, there’s nothing much of value there.

First is the loan default rate where it compares the default rate at the specific college against the national average default rate. The reality check doesn’t show the national default rate, but I don’t see that as a big deal. Instead, the College Reality Check allows you to compare default rates of schools you’re comparing. This is a much more meaningful yardstick.

Second is the median borrowing data for the school. The College Scorecard displays the monthly payment to service this debt and then lists the average amount borrowed by families. The College Reality Check doesn’t show the total debt and chooses just to show the monthly payment. But it also lets you compare the monthly cost of borrowing for up to five schools side by side.

Third on the College Scorecard should be a look ahead at the salary you can expect to earn once you graduate. But instead there’s no data and a placeholder apology that advises you to call the college and ask them for the information. That seems pretty lame.

If you look at College Reality Check’s presentation it’s very robust by comparison. You can switch between a monthly or yearly perspective to see what average annual (or monthly) earnings are for graduates and how much the debt represents against the salary. Default rates for the schools are easy to compare between the selected schools. And one other nice feature is that there’s a little tick mark on both the salary and monthly debt payment line that shows how it compares to the national average. Winner: College Reality Check

#5 Enhanced Features

There are a few other aspects of the College Reality Check that are nice enhancements that the College Scorecard simply lacks. In addition to the ability to compare five colleges, there are three other features we really like.

First is the Read More and View Table functionality. When you click Read More on any of the tables, you see a detailed explanation of the concept, how the data was calculated, national averages (where applicable) as well as links to related articles and additional resources. This is a very rich back-end that’s incredibly informative and thorough. The View Table link lets you view the data in a table rather than a list.

Second is the easy navigation shortcut menu. At the top of the page are the icons shown above. They allow you to jump quickly down to the information you want to see rather than scrolling if you choose. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a nice feature that shows this is a well thought out application that aims to please.

Third are the export and share functionalities. At the top of the page is the menu above which allows you to print, social share or download the data into a file compatible with Excel.

At the bottom of the page is an invitation to share your comparison. This is nice functionality that can allow family members that may be involved in footing the school bill to see what options the student is considering.

And when you click to share your comparison, this is the interface you see. You can Facebook, Tweet or email the results. That’s well and good, but what makes it even nicer is the caveat we’ve indicated with the arrow that your income preference will not be shared.

Finally, they include an instructional video to show you how to use the tool that’s a nice touch and is perfect for those who aren’t into reading instructions (i.e. teens and young adults – the YouTube generation!)

Final Results

Obama’s College Scorecard was greeted by some cheers and some jeers, but even its proponents had to acknowledge it was flawed and that promised functionality wasn’t (and still isn’t) active. By comparison, the College Reality Check is robust, informative, well thought out, easy to use and offers substantial supporting information and resources so that anyone can understand the data, why it’s important and how it was derived. In all, an excellent tool!

If you are already in college or have graduated and already have student loans, Tuition.io’s free student loan tool can help you track your existing loans. If you’re just getting ready to start college in the fall, we recommend you start using our free tool as soon as you sign on for your first loan. Our easy interface lets you view all your loans, track balances and pay off dates, explore repayment options and contact your lenders!

Also check out these recent blogs on the College Scorecard and other concerns for prospective college students and their families:

5 Easy Ways to Cut College Costs

Critics Say College Scorecard Is Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Pay As You Go – A More Affordable Student Loan Model

Stop Student Loan problems Before They Start – Financial Education Is Key

High School Students Know Diddly About Student Loan Debt – Survey Shows…