According to the College Scorecard, a searchable White House database that debuted this month, nearly 21 percent of students who borrow money to attend Chicago’s Harold Washington College default on their loans within three years. At Malcolm X College, also part of Chicago’s city system, the default rate is even higher – 29.1 percent – while Columbia College’s rate was also comparatively high, at 11.4 percent.
According to the database, all three schools also have graduation rates below 50 percent for full-time students who are enrolled in college for the first time: 41 percent for Columbia College; 9.8 percent for Malcolm X; and just 6.2 percent for Harold Washington.
But spokesmen for the City Colleges of Chicago and Columbia College pushed back against the statistics, arguing that a different picture emerges when the numbers are put in proper context. Their comments raise questions about the utility of the Scorecard for both counselors and college applicants alike at a time when higher education costs continue to climb.
Data questioned by local colleges
During his State of the Union Address, President Obama called for combating “the soaring cost of higher education.” As part of that effort, he announced the creation of the Scorecard, a White House website currently providing net attendance costs, graduation rates, borrowing rates, and default rates for colleges nationwide.
Obama said the site was a tool “parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria, where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
According to the Scorecard, most of the largest schools in Chicago have loan default rates well below the national average of 13.4 percent. Northwestern University’s default rate, for example, was 1.8 percent. Harold Washington College, Malcolm X College, and Columbia College were the exceptions.
But Ana Vargas, spokeswoman for the City of Chicago Colleges, argued that the Scorecard fails to properly contextualize the information it provides.
In an email, Vargas wrote that, “The vast majority of City Colleges students don’t take out loans,” paying instead with their own funds or using federal grants.
Vargas wrote that “the 2009 default rate is based on just seven students defaulting out of only 24 students who were repaying loans.” 7,000 students attended the school annually, according to Vargas.
During that same time period, Vargas wrote, 115 Harold Washington students were repaying loans, with 24 in default. Each year, the school teaches 13,000 students, she wrote.
Regarding graduation rates, Vargas wrote that CCC is working to improve retention rates. However, she also noted that “many of our students are part-time and take courses toward a degree over many years while working” and are therefore not included in the official graduation statistics produced by the Scorecard website.
Ken Gotsch, the chief financial officer for Columbia College, said that the nature of Columbia’s student body impacts the school’s statistics.
“We’re happy that we’re below the national average,” he said in reference to the default rate. “But because we were historically an open enrollment institution, a number of our students who came and then were dropping out after the first semester or the first year, saddled with some loan debt and then going into default from that debt, certainly is influencing our particular measure.”
Columbia’s acceptance process is becoming more restrictive, Gotsch said, adding that he expects the graduation rate to increase as a result.
Gotsch said Columbia’s endowment is small compared to larger universities like Northwestern, adding that the school is focused on “raising more scholarship funds so we can provide an alternative source of revenue to students.”
Columbia’s endowment was listed as just over $93 million in 2010. In that year, Northwestern’s endowment was approximately $5.9 billion.
However, while Gotsch noted that the accuracy and accessibility of data made available to students by government sources has been criticized, he was supportive of the underlying intent of the Scorecard, and said that Columbia is working to improve services like counseling and tutoring that will heighten retention rates.
“We have a set of measures that maybe aren’t as attractive as we’d like them to be, but I don’t think we should be afraid of it,” Gotsch said.
“The fact that these measures are out there, and they’re being more public, it’s forcing colleges like us to have to manage to them,” he said. “I think the intent of Congress or the intent of the president is for higher education institutions to be more accountable and more responsive, and I’ve got to believe that’s a good thing.”
College counselors react
Chicago’s Nobel Rauner High School sends 90 percent of its seniors on to a four-year or two-year collegiate program, according to official school statistics. Eric Rapp, Rauner’s director of college counseling, said he works largely with students who are among the first in their family to attend college.
“College affordability is key to our counseling,” Rapp said. “We are comfortable advising students to borrow around $6,000 [per] year. Not only is taking out loans necessary to afford college it also serves as a reminder that students need to invest in their future and there is no better investment than that of your own education.”
Rapp said Noble provides its own data to prospective college applicants. While he said that the Scorecard site may prove useful to other schools, its data was likely too broad in scope to be useful to the particular populations of students he works with.
Patrick Tassoni, a counselor at Chicago’s Northside High School, said 98 percent of the school’s graduates attend a four year college. The school’s student body is a third low-income and two thirds working and middle class, he said.
Tassoni described the College Scorecard’s information as “extremely valuable for students to know,” adding that he plans on using it as a counseling tool. He said that while accuracy and context were important, the site’s overall effect was still a good one.
“It also is a springboard for important conversations that students and families need to have – about finances, loans, repayment, job market outlook – that are sometimes overlooked or eclipsed by the school’s reputation or the excitement of getting in,” he said.
In addition to an aid for college counseling, Tassoni said he’s using the site to introduce his own students to important concepts in personal financial management.
Impact on students
Regardless of the accuracy of the picture painted by the College Scorecard, its impact on the actions of prospective college students remains an open question.
When shown the Scorecard’s data for Harold Washington, Cam, a freshman who is on financial aid and who asked not to be identified by his full name, said the website would not have impacted his decision to attend the school.
“That’s an individual choice that someone would make,” he said. “All the choices I make are my individual choices,” he said, adding that the fates of other students didn’t apply to him.
Similarly, Jacob Edinger, a sophomore at Columbia College who is also receiving financial aid, said the site’s data wouldn’t have impacted his decision to attend Columbia, even if he had been forced to take out more in loans to do so.
“Either way, I was going to go to school, because I’m the first kid in my family to attempt to go to college,” Edinger said.
“I wanted a higher education,” he said, adding that he felt Columbia was a good fit for him.
Sofia Bibliowicz, a Columbia senior from Atlanta, said she had forgone a cheap in-state degree in order to attend the college. “I didn’t want to stay in Atlanta,” she said.
Bibliowicz said she had taken out loans to afford the school. Shown the school’s 11.4 percent default rate, she laughed. “I will probably be in that 11 percent,” she said.
And would the information have impacted her decision to attend Columbia, if she had seen it while still in high school?
“Probably not then, but now, yeah,” Bibliowicz said. “I don’t think that I would pay the amount that I’ve paid to stay here, in retrospect. And it has gone up every year, so it’s kind of a love-hate relationship.”
“I think when you’re young, and you just want to go away from home,” Bibliowicz said. “It’s kind of like, I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll take out loans. But now that you’re about to graduate, and realize exactly what’s going to happen, I think you have a different outlook on life.”