Obama unveils a scaled-back college search tool

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Sharply scaling back plans for a government-run college rating system, President Barack Obama is now trumpeting a redesigned online tool that will give students and their parents information about costs, student loans and other data to help them choose among the nation's colleges and universities.

The revamped College Scorecard, debuting Saturday on the Education Department's website, will offer consumers a way to see what each school's graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school's students can pay back their loans.

"Everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value," Obama said in his weekly radio address. "Many existing college rankings reward schools for spending more money and rejecting more students -- at a time when America needs our colleges to focus on affordability and supporting all students who enroll."

The department's scorecard had allowed users to search schools by majors offered, ZIP code, size and campus setting, among other things.

The newly retooled site will provide fresh data, Education Department officials said, to help students choose the right college, with an emphasis on cost and post-grad results.

For example, the department said, the scorecard will contain the first comprehensive look at after-college earnings for students who attended all types of undergraduate institutions, based on tax records.

So, a college-bound student could find on the site the proportion of students at a particular school who earned more than they would have had they not gone to college but entered the job market right after high school. They also could find measures detailing graduates' earnings six years and 10 years after enrolling.

Users would also be able to search graduation rates and typical student debt and monthly payments a student would owe for each school.

"Students deserve to know their investment of resources and hard work in college is going to pay off," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will kick off a seven-state, back-to-school bus tour on Monday, with Obama appearing at the first stop in Des Moines, Iowa. The two will host a town hall meeting on college affordability and access.

The updated scorecard falls well short of the president's original plan, proposed two years ago before a crowd of 7,000 at the University of Buffalo.

Then, Obama announced that the government would design a college ratings system that would judge schools on their affordability and return on investment. The idea was immediately criticized by many in higher education who worried that the rankings would be arbitrary and unfair -- and Republican critics who called it government overreach.

The bold plan Obama originally sought was scaled back this summer. Plans to eventually use the ratings as a basis to parcel out billions of federal dollars in financial aid were abandoned.

The government would no longer "rate" the nation's more than 7,000 colleges and universities. Instead, the administration said it would take a different approach and offer students and families more data to help them make better choices -- and draw their own conclusions.

Leaders in the world of higher education who opposed the ratings system cautiously welcomed the new approach. American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad acknowledged the interest in having accurate data about earnings for college graduates, but she said the revised scorecard still needs work.

"Developing a system of this size and scope is a complicated and nuanced endeavor and the department has done so without any external review," she said.

Significant data limitations exist, she said, such as one single earning number for an entire institution -- regardless of whether the student studied chemical engineering or philosophy.

The scorecard will be available to students on mobile phones, the department said.

College search sites, such as ScholarMatch and StartClass, are using the new scorecard data to develop customized searches for students on their websites.