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College Scorecard ex-director says Trump administration is scrubbing important information

The former director of a government-run website for prospective college students believes that the platform is becoming less useful because the Trump administration is scrubbing information.

“Over the past year or so, we’ve seen some announced changes to the Scorecard, and in my opinion, those changes haven’t been beneficial for students looking to make the best college decisions,” Michael Itzkowitz, who served in the Education Department (ED) from 2010 to 2016 and oversaw College Scorecard in 2015 and 2016, told Yahoo Finance.

The website holds data published by the Department of Education (ED) that shows how much debt a student at a specific college program and institution will incur, as well as expected salaries and overall graduation rates.

“Essentially it's the main consumer tool that the ED has for students to help students make better college choices,” explained Itzkowitz, who is now a senior fellow at the think tank Third Way. 

(SCREENSHOT: College Scorecard)

The Trump administration, despite rolling back several other Obama-era policies on higher education and student debt, initially continued to develop the Scorecard website.

But more recently, the ED stopped publishing schools’ loan repayment rates. And while the data’s still available, it’s more difficult to find on the website. (According to a March executive order by the president, more information on loan repayment outcomes broken down by loan type is likely to come soon.) The ED also stopped publishing how the earnings of a school’s former students fare as compared to the earnings of high school grads.

Both comparisons could have helped students understand if the program they’re thinking of pursuing was worth it and/or could afford it.

Education Department Spokesperson Angela Morabito told Yahoo Finance that under Secretary DeVos’ leadership, College Scorecard “has been entirely revamped to benefit students, improve transparency, and hold schools accountable.”

Morabito stressed that the platform “for the first time ever” displays “precise program-level data wherever possible” and breaks down debt and earnings by field of study, as well as enables users to compare schools side by side.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, DC on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The for-profit-schools angle

The ED also changed the default search option to arrange schools by their graduation rate — or “completion” rate — instead of their employment outcomes. That move effectively boosted some for-profit colleges to the top of the list. 

If one were to now look for colleges in Florida, for instance, their first few search results would be ordered in terms of the graduation rate. The first school that appears is the Beauty Academy of South Florida, followed by Florida Academy — both cosmetology schools.

Previously, the options were displayed in order of employment outcomes.

“On the face level, that doesn't sound so bad because completion is very important,” Itzkowitz said, but “what this does is it often bumps shorter-term for-profit certificate programs to the top of the default search, many which show poor employment outcomes for students.”

In this screenshot provided to Yahoo Finance, Itzkowitz drew attention to how low salaries were at colleges that boasted extremely high completion or graduation rates. (SCREENSHOT: ITZKOWITZ/SCORECARD

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is facing several lawsuits related to the repeal of a Obama-era rule implemented in 2014 designed to help victims of predatory for-profit institutions.

The policies put in place by the Obama administration were aimed to improve accountability and transparency among for-colleges, several of which closed after defrauding students. DeVos contended that some of the rules placed an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer and singled out for-profit colleges. 

Itzkowitz noted that for-profit institutions generally “are the most likely to leave students underemployed and with unmanageable debt,” and data corroborates that notion.

‘Minimal federal laws that are currently in place to hold institutions accountable’

In a new paper, Itzkowitz explored data related to how long it takes for a graduate to pay off their student loans. He found some bad news. 

While the majority of students who graduate from colleges and universities manage to “recoup the cost of earning their credential” somewhere around five years out, Itzkowitz detailed in his paper that one-third of students were not seeing a benefit in the short term from their freshly acquired credential.

(SCREENSHOT: Third Way)

At 228 higher education institutions he evaluated, it took students more than 10 years to pay down the cost of their education. And in 442 institutions, there was no return on investment, which revealed that “students will likely never be able to recoup their educational investment,” Itzkowitz argued. The kicker: 51% of those 442 institutions with less than zero ROI were for-profit institutions. 

And with some Americans considering higher education amid the coronavirus pandemic, Itzkowitz worried that the information disappearing from the Scorecard means that prospective students won’t have full knowledge of what they’re paying for.

“Essentially, there are minimal federal laws that are currently in place to hold institutions accountable for the outcomes of their students,” Itzkowitz said.

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering student debt and higher education. If you have attended or worked at a for-profit college and would like to share your experience, reach out to her at aarthi@yahoofinance.com

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