Metro

COLLEGE BOUND

Should future income drive your college search?

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

College Bound offers tips and perspectives on preparing, applying, and paying for college.

For years, high school seniors and their anxious parents pored through college guides the size of phone books. They agonized whether that California college ranked 52nd by US News & World Report really was better than the nearby school that came in 75th — and offered a scholarship.

This fall, applicants have a new tool for measuring the schools of their dreams — and ratcheting up their anxiety. It’s the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which among other things reveals the earnings of alumni.

But how helpful is it to learn that students who go to engineering and pharmaceutical schools clean up after they graduate, if you’re a high school senior who wants to study music?

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“It’s just not that simple, we are dealing with human beings,” said Alan Houghtaling, founder of Evolve Tutoring and Evolve Life Coaching, based in Belmont.

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“It’s all hard numbers, but it’s hard to quantify a feeling. And isn’t that something that should be considered? Does a particular school feel like a place where you want to be for the next four years of your life? That’s important too.”

The College Scorecard, released by the Obama administration Sept. 12, takes data based on students who received federal aid and calculates their earnings after graduation, their student debt, and loan repayment rate.

In addition, the scorecard provides demographic data for each school, information about the SAT and ACT score range of admitted students, retention rates, and a list of the most popular areas of study.

Dan Rubin, director of guidance at Newton South High School, said that for most students, a specific job and salary range after graduation is “a force” but not necessarily the driving force behind a college decision.

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Rubin said he often steers students interested in career data to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, which has information about job forecasts, education requirements for entry level positions in specific types of jobs, and salary ranges.

He also said Naviance, a college search website used by many high schools in the area, can be helpful for students trying to figure out if a college has the types of programs they are thinking about pursuing.

The scorecard provides new and detailed information about all schools in one place, however, and according to Martha Savery, director of public affairs for the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority, “anything that gives more information is a good thing.”

“It gives some good insight,” she said.

Savery said the information provided about student debt — including the percentage of students receiving federal loans, the median federal debt and loan payment, and the percentage of students actively paying down their debt — is critical information families should look at during their college search.

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But even with the financial information, Savery said there are caveats.

The figures represent only students who have gotten federal aid, for example, so the debt information does not reflect private loans, but only loans from the federal government.

Savery said College Navigator also provides useful information about the net price of an institution, and is something the federal government requires every college to provide on their websites.

Dick Joseph, who started MVP College Funding in North Andover eight years ago, said the students he’s working with haven’t asked about the scorecard yet, but he will definitely bring it to their attention.

“Instead of giving rankings, it gives a lot of information about thousands of schools in one place,” he said. “It’s going to be very useful.”

Joseph said he would have liked to have seen salary averages broken down by major. But he finds the information on test scores and school demographics extremely helpful to give kids a basic indication of whether they should continue looking into a certain school.

“A lot of emotional factors go into a decision, but this is providing information to guide the search,” he said.

Educational consultant Ian Fisher thinks the graduation rates listed for each institution in the scorecard are among the most important nuggets of information provided.

“The graduation rate is going to tell you how effective a school is at fulfilling its basic promise to students,” said Fisher, who works at College Coach in Watertown.

A low rate could indicate that students aren’t able to get into classes they need to graduate on time, adding time, and money, onto the cost of a degree, Fisher said.

But while Fisher finds some important information in the scorecard, he also sees a lot missing.

Take for instance the quick portrait painted of Bennington College, a small, coeducational liberal arts college in Vermont whose alumni include award-winning actors Peter Dinklage and Alan Arkin, comedian Carol Channing, and writers Michael Pollan and Bret Easton Ellis.

It shows that the average cost per year for students who qualify for federal financial aid is nearly $30,000, it has a graduation rate of 66 percent, and students make an average of just $26,500 ten years after entering the school.

“What is missing here in these statistics is the stories behind the school,” Fisher said.

What you see when you look at Bennington is a school that is fairly expensive, yet has a really, really low average salary for graduates, he said. Not a great combination.

What you don’t see is that for a particular kind of student looking for a creative environment where they can shape their own educational path, it might be perfect.

For many involved in education and the college admission process, that is the conundrum posed by the College Scorecard.

While all the facts and figures provide a lot of useful information, educators like Oliver Crocco, a graduate of the Harvard School of Education who works as a college admissions advisor in Washington D.C., worry that the scorecard is shifting the value of education.

“How will this scorecard change how high school kids view learning if education is viewed as a means to an end?” he asked. “It takes the pleasure out of learning when your motivation is solely to get a job.”

Crocco said the scorecard does not consider things that made his college experiences so rich, such as having small classes rather than a schedule of large lectures, being able to have a cup of coffee with professors and discuss ideas, and becoming a part of a community.

And he worries that creating an educational system geared toward attaining the highest paying jobs might stunt creativity, and make being curious about the world, and having a reason to explore things that don’t directly lead to a career, deemed a waste of resources.

“The scorecard has some important information, but my hope is that it doesn’t become the sole measure,” he said. “Students should be able to enjoy learning as a privilege. I don’t want to lose that.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.