AUGUSTA — An online college comparison tool launched this week by the White House to improve transparency about college affordability and outcomes is being praised in concept by people who work in and study education.

However, some say the new College Scorecard has shortcomings and will be useful only if students and their parents understand what it means.

Gregory LaPointe, executive director of institutional research and planning at the University of Maine at Augusta, said he’s concerned about the impression the scorecard could give prospective students about UMA. The university’s average net cost and median borrowing are low, but so is the graduation rate: 16 percent.

That figure includes only first-time, full-time students, who are a small minority of the 6,900 students UMA enrolls in an academic year.

“That makes up a couple of hundred students that fit into that category,” LaPointe said. “When someone’s going to come to this page for our students, they’re only getting that perspective.”

Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst with the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation, said the scorecard is full of important information that should be disseminated widely.

“I think it’s a good start,” she said. “I think there’s still more that they can do, and I still think the impact will be small unless we figure out a way to actively get it into students’ hands.”

Fishman said colleges and universities should be required to post the College Scorecard on their websites’ homepages and send it to students who request information. Now it’s only on the White House website, www.whitehouse.gov.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama said the scorecard would show students “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

The tool has a page for every higher-education institution that receives federal financial aid and includes five measures: average net cost after grants and scholarships, graduation rate, loan default rate, median borrowing and average earnings for graduates. There are visual gauges showing whether an institution’s graduation rate, for instance, is low, medium or high compared to others that grant the same type of degree.

No information is available yet on the average earnings of graduates, and the scorecard advises prospective students to ask the college or university for more information about employment.

UMA students said they were already able to find the information they needed before enrolling, whether from the College Board or directly from UMA. Mariah Bustard, a 19-year-old liberal studies student from Waterville, said she looked up typical costs and borrowing for UMA and decided to enroll because it was inexpensive and close to home.

Bustard said the low graduation rate presented on the scorecard does not change her perception of UMA as a good school, but it could sway people less familiar with the university.

Jessie Chazin, a 33-year-old music student from Monmouth, said much of the scorecard seems either irrelevant to her — such as other people’s loan defaults — or redundant, with information available elsewhere.

“I looked at the stats and I read about the college and I tried to figure out more,” she said. “I hope other people would do that, too.”

Dan Connolly, guidance counselor at Gardiner Area High School, said the scorecard seems like a valuable tool.

“The more we can get transparency in education in terms of cost, the better off we’re all going to be in terms of students making good decisions,” he said.

One thing not included in the College Scorecard is information about financial aid renewability. Connolly said that’s important because some colleges don’t tell students that the grants or scholarships they’re offered will run out after the first or second year.

The College Scorecard is the latest in a series of initiatives to make college costs more transparent. Since October 2011, institutions have been required to offer an online net price calculator that takes into account family income and available financial aid.

The College Scorecard includes much of the same information that’s available on the federal government’s College Navigator website or through organizations such as the College Board.

Fishman said the value of the new tool is in putting that information in one place and simplifying its presentation.

“There are a lot of other tools out there that are very complicated,” she said. “They bombard students with information. And usually when the federal government develops tools, they tend to be hard to navigate and have a ton of data.”

Some terms, however, still may go over the heads of students and parents, said Julie Margetta Morgan, director of post-secondary access and success at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based on Washington.

When the group presented an earlier draft of the College Scorecard to focus groups of high school students, they found that some students didn’t understand the concept of a net price or might skip the text of the scorecard to focus on graphics.

Morgan said she is glad that the median borrowing figure provides not only a total but also an estimated monthly loan payment to help students understand how taking on a large amount of debt would affect them in everyday life.

At Thomas College in Waterville, for example, the median amount borrowed is $17,187, equating to monthly payments of $198 over 10 years.

LaPointe said UMA officials are not satisfied with the 16 percent graduation rate, but it’s also not fair for the scorecard to compare UMA to all other baccalaureate institutions. Private colleges and flagship state universities have a very different population of students from that of UMA, which accepts nearly every applicant and has many students attending part-time while working and caring for children.

UMA is looking into a new model of evaluating institutional success that incorporates student learning.

LaPointe said he is not sure how useful the College Scorecard will be.

“I think the vehicle is right and I think the thought is right, but are parents and students going to know to dig into it?” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Thomas College President Laurie Lachance said prospective students are becoming savvier about the type of information in the College Scorecards — even the first-generation students who make up more than 70 percent of her college’s enrollment.

“I think the more informed choices that are made, the better off we’ll all be,,” she said, “because people will choose the path that’s best for them and the path where they’re most likely to find success.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com