ON THE AGENDA | NOVEMBER 13TH, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi
The White House's public tool for searching and comparing colleges is largely unknown to a large chunk of prospective students -- adults considering a degree.
When the White House released a new ‘College Scorecard’ earlier this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote, “Too often, students and their families don’t have the right tools to help them sort through the information they need to decide which college or university is right for them.” The White House’s scorecard aims to fill this gap by providing, in an easily digestible format, information like graduation rates, average costs and loan default rates. Policy makers say such data are important to judging the quality and performance of our schools. But the College Scorecard may not be reaching the students who need it most.
Earlier this year, we sat down with adults who are considering going or returning to college. It had been years since these individuals had seen a high school guidance counselor or a college prep class. For them, a tool like the College Scorecard could be immensely useful. But, in our focus groups, we found that the White House’s strategy does not line up with the habits of adult prospective students. In order to reach this group, which sorely needs unbiased college information and advice, the White House must better align the scorecard with their college search practices and priorities.
The following are three simple ways that the College Scorecard could be improved, based on our research.
Adult prospective students told us that their college searches start in one place: Google. But it’s not easy to stumble on College Scorecard in a Google search. In the first two pages of search results for phrases like “college search,” “stats on colleges,” “what’s the right college for me,” or “graduation rate at [school name],” the College Scorecard never appears. “Where is it? Do you know what I mean? Where would we find it?” asked a woman from Los Angeles. “Why would we even think to go to whitehouse.gov?,” she said. If the White House wants its scorecard to make a difference in the lives of prospective college students, then, above all, they need to make their efforts visible, especially in the search engines that prospective students use most.
Additionally, reactions to the White House’s College Scorecard – unlike reactions to the other online college search tools we presented – were occasionally incredulous. Outside of the student loan system, adult prospective students often do not associate the government – and especially the White House – with higher education and their college search. To draw these prospective students to the site and keep them there, the White House needs to quickly justify its role as college advisor and explain the website's value. From there, though, our participants mostly considered the White House worthy source of information; as a woman from Detroit said, “It’s a source you could trust.”
The number of cell phone owners who access the internet on their phone is rising fast, according to Pew, up to 63 percent this year. And 21 percent of adult cell owners say they go online mostly on their cell phone, up from 17 percent just last year. Those most likely to access the internet primarily on their phones are young adults, minorities, those who make less than $30,000 a year, and those who have not graduated college.
Yet once we did get our prospective students to look up the College Scorecard, we came across another problem: it is not compatible with mobile screens. Prospective students who looked at the scorecard on their phones were quick to move on.
The people who could benefit most from additional advising during their college search increasingly prefer a mobile internet experience. Developers should focus on optimizing the College Scorecard for cell phones and tablets. Furthermore, the White House might consider producing an app version of their tool for smart phone use.
Those who viewed the College Scorecard had mixed reviews of its usability. Older prospective students, it seems, had more patience for the site. One woman from Los Angeles called it “warm” and “very personal.” One man told us he liked the buttons which sort the search categories: “It is bringing up the primary stuff that you want to sort by. Instead of … like if you did a Google search for it, you wouldn’t have this type of information or layout.”
But young adult participants sometimes dismissed the College Scorecard quickly, based on looks. One young student from Philadelphia said the scorecard looked like what he would imagine from the Social Security website – an “appeal to lameness” that struck a chord with other participants. One exclaimed, “I looked at it and I looked again and turned it off. I was like, ‘No.’”
Arriving at the College Scorecard website, these visitors often said they could not immediately determine what to do with it or how it could benefit them. These participants wanted a clearer interface with an obvious pathway, crisper graphics, brighter contrasting colors and less – though more straight-forward – text. For the White House to capture and keep the attention of these younger users, it may be worth it to consider such changes.
When we surveyed adult prospective college students nationwide, only 18 percent said they had ever used an interactive online college search tool, but nearly half said that kind of resource would help them a great deal. There is an opening for tools like the White House’s College Scorecard. Prospective students are hungry for some guidance in their college searches. A few simple changes may make all the difference.
The data in this article was collected for a series of reports on adult students and higher education written by Public Agenda and sponsored by The Kresge Foundation. Check out the most recent of these reports, “Is College Worth It For Me?” which looks at the ways adult prospective college students think about going to college and provides further recommendations for policy-makers and industry leaders to help.