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Reception mixed for federal college calculator website

| Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

An online government-run calculator designed to help families understand the complexities of college costs could be helpful, though some information might be misleading, experts say.

The site, whitehouse.gov/scorecard, calculates five criteria for every college: annual price after grant aid, six-year graduation rates, loan default rates, median borrowing and post-graduate employment — a section yet to be completed. It debuted last week under the cloud of student debt surpassing $1 trillion last year.

The web tool met with mixed reviews.

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit with offices in Washington and Oakland, Calif., that provides an annual state breakdown on student debt, said it “has the potential to be a game-changer.”

“Overall, the data provided on the scorecard are what students and families need to better understand their college options,” Asher said. But she cautioned that data on default rates and median borrowing can be misleading without context, such as the percentage of students who borrowed money.

Rachel Fishman, a higher education policy analyst for the nonpartisan Washington-based New America Foundation, said the scorecard's plan to aggregate post-graduate employment data by tapping federal databases rather than accepting self-reports from schools is a first and could prove valuable.

“We're spending so much of our education budget on higher education that taxpayers have a right to know what they're getting for it,” she said.

Fishman commended the calculator's monthly payment feature: “That's something we haven't been giving students.”

Some experts cautioned that graduation rates might be misleading, too.

The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan education policy group in Washington, said four-year graduation rates would be more helpful to families of high school students considering a traditional route to an undergraduate degree. Others contend that even the six-year figure gives misleadingly low numbers for some schools with a high percentage of non-traditional students.

“We're concerned that it's hard to apply a one-size-fits-all form to all schools across the country,” said Megan McClean, policy director for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Washington.

University of Pittsburgh junior Dave Rosenthal, 20, of West Chester said he'll graduate debt-free. But he will borrow money for graduate school and said most of his fraternity brothers went into debt to pay for college.

“It's hard to fathom how much something is going to cost when you are 18 and just getting out of high school,” said Rosenthal, who remains confident that the benefits of his education will outweigh any debt he incurs.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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