DOE Scorecard data erasing top higher education institutions from national rankings

Reliance on a flawed and misguided federal initiative is making high-performing independent colleges disappear from well-known college rankings designed to help millions of students and their families make one of the most important decisions of their lives.

Last week The Wall Street Journal, partnering with Times Higher Education, released its first-ever college rankings. The Journal’s approach focuses on “what students get out of” college, with graduation rates, alumni salaries and student loan repayment rates making up 40 percent of a school’s grade. Nearly 800 American colleges and universities were evaluated. 

Missing from the Journal’s rankings were a handful of schools, including Grove City College, that could have made the cut based on their past performance but weren’t even considered because they have chosen – on principle – not to accept federal funding.

This summer, Money magazine issued its annual “Best Colleges” listing and Grove City College, which was in the top 100 in 2015, was absent. Earlier this month, USA Today published its annual rundown of nearly 500 of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning. Grove City College, which was included in last year’s edition, was nowhere to be found. 

All three outlets approach rankings from different angles, but a common factor in their evaluation is the use of data from the U.S. College Scorecard, a consumer information tool designed and touted by the U.S. Department of Education as a “one-stop-shop” and the final word on key measures of institutional quality, such as college costs, graduation rates, student loan default rates, and graduate earnings.  

“It defies logic that a school that is consistently ranked by others, including Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report, as one of the nation’s top private liberal arts and sciences colleges would go from Money’s Top 100 one year to non-existent the next,” President Paul J. McNulty, ‘80 said. “Grove City College didn’t change in a year, but the methodology that private sector reviewers use to evaluate schools did, and it is costing the College valuable third-party validation of its success as an educational institution with a tremendous return on investment.”

In fact, Grove City College meets or exceeds the national averages that the Scorecard establishes:

     • Tuition – Grove City College charges students $16,630 per year before scholarships and financial aid, just $35 more than the national average of $16,595 the Department says students pay after accounting for federal student aid, scholarships, and other factors.

     • Graduation – The College’s 85 percent graduation rate is more than double the Scorecard’s 42 percent national average.

     • Freshman retention – Grove City’s stands at 92 percent, 24 points higher than the national average.

     • Graduate earnings – The average early career salary of Grove City College graduates is $48,100, according to PayScale.com, that’s 42 percent higher than the $33,800 national average. 

Introduced in fall 2015, the Scorecard was the product of years of wrangling on Capitol Hill over concerns about runaway tuition prices and sub-par graduate outcomes. President Obama and the Department of Education proclaimed the Scorecard as a comprehensive evaluation of “every” American institution of higher education.

Except it isn’t. The Scorecard doesn’t include colleges like Grove City that don’t participate in federal student loan programs established under Title IV.  Different schools have different reasons for forgoing federal funding, but for Grove City College, freedom has always been a matter of principle. The College has never sought federal support and operates virtually debt free, supported only by tuition dollars and the generosity of its donors. 

After the College was omitted from the Scorecard in 2015, McNulty appealed to the Department of Education to either include Grove City College and others that were left out of the database or provide a disclaimer to make it clear that not all colleges and universities were included. After receiving no response, McNulty said, “We’re disappointed, but not surprised, that the Department has not responded to our request to include Grove City College in the Scorecard database, or at the very least, to provide a disclaimer to families that colleges that do not receive Title IV funds are not represented.”

In spite of the omission, the 140-year-old private Pennsylvania liberal arts, sciences and engineering college enjoys national prominence. Grove City College is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and has been a mainstay of U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review and any number of other top college rankings. As rankings have proliferated in recent years, the College has been recognized by dozens of higher education partners, associations, magazines, journals and web sites as a top national liberal arts college, a best value college, an outstanding Christian college, and even having one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. 

“Grove City College has never asked the federal government for anything other than to be left alone to pursue its mission of providing students a high-quality liberal arts education in a Christ-centered community at a price that families can afford,” McNulty said. “We face the same challenges that all colleges and universities do, but without the safety net of federal support because we stick to our principles and refuse to ask taxpayers to pay our bills. Ironically, the taxpayers are now funding a flawed rating system that is being used to obscure high-quality, affordable college options. If the Department of Education cannot provide a truly fair and comprehensive tool for prospective students and their families, perhaps it is time for the Department to get out of the consumer information business.”

DOE Scorecard data erasing top higher education institutions from national rankings

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