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Want to find an affordable college? There's a website for that

The U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard got a big update.
Department of Education College Scorecard
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Screenshot by NPR

Updated February 17, 2022 at 2:25 PM ET

The College Scorecard has gotten a makeover. And no, this has nothing to do with your March Madness bracket. The Scorecard is an online trove of federal data that can help prospective students choose the college that's right for them – and, just maybe, avoid a lifetime of student debt and heartache.

The site, collegescorecard.ed.gov, can tell you a lot about a school – from its graduation rate and the earnings of former students, to how much debt you can expect to take on. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education updated the site, adding new data, details and restoring a few statistics that the Trump administration had scrapped.

The updated scorecard lets you compare schools based on graduates' earnings, then see how those earnings compare to workers without a degree. It even shows how well a school serves its low-income students.

"The updated and enhanced College Scorecard shines a spotlight on affordability, inclusivity, and outcomes, over exclusivity and colleges that leave students without good jobs and with mountains of debt," said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

What follows is a look at what's new and, for those of you who haven't used it before, a quick tutorial. Consider this a news story/user's manual; a newsual. For help, NPR called on Michael Itzkowitz, the Scorecard's former director who managed its launch in 2013 and its 2015 revamp.

Let's start (where else?) on the home page

The Scorecard is like a shopping mall: It has many doors. Maybe the easiest to use is the "Search" button in the upper right corner. Click it, and you'll see a massive list of every school with students who receive federal student aid.

Search page
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

These schools are now, by default, ordered according to the median earnings of students 10 years after they enrolled – not just graduates, but all former students who received federal aid.

It's a fascinating Polaroid of what the U.S. economy values – a whorl of highly-selective heavy-hitters that specialize in engineering and computer science (MIT, Harvey Mudd), and less-selective programs for in-demand healthcare jobs like nursing (MCPHS University).

Earnings
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

It's a good reminder about the sometimes-overlooked fields of study that give students the most bang for their buck – something Itzkowitz, now a senior fellow at Third Way, has crunched the numbers on:

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How to compare colleges near you

While some students may want to use the Scorecard to do nationwide searches, Itzkowitz says, "Most students look for a college closer to their home."

Let's do that.

In the white column along the left, there's a function to search by "Location" – you can either select "Near Me," type in your zip code or simply look statewide. For this search, we used Itzkowitz's Florida zip code, then expanded the search to include all schools within 50 miles. Also, be sure to check the kind of degree you're hoping for. We checked bachelor's and... voilà!

Thirty-nine colleges and universities show up, and you can immediately see their graduation rates, average annual costs and, again, the median earnings of former students.

West Coast University-Miami is first in line because its students' median earnings hit a whopping $97,371(another nursing-focused school).

Now check out the second school on the list, University of Miami.

University of Miami
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

83% of students graduate within eight years of enrolling, which is considerably better than the midpoint for four-year schools, 56%. Median earnings are also well above the midpoint.

University of Miami median earnings
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

But the annual cost is more than twice what you might expect to pay at other four-year schools.

University of Miami average cost
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

Now scroll down to the University of Miami's "Fields of Study" section, and click to expand it.

You can see the school offers 93 undergraduate fields of study, of which nursing and finance are the largest. But if you sort by "Highest Earnings," computer science and mechanical engineering win out. This snapshot of program-level earnings was added by the Trump administration.

Keep heading south now and click on "Costs."

Here the Scorecard lays out what you might expect to pay, depending on your family income. At the University of Miami, families earning $0 - $30,000 still face a pretty steep price tag: $42,611.

University of Miami costs vs. income
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

Under "Graduation & Retention," you'll find a handful of useful stats, including a new function, "Show Pell Grant Recipients Only," that offers a clearer sense of a school's commitment to helping low-income students finish their degrees. The University of Miami's Pell-only graduation rate drops slightly, to 78%, but that's still well above the 56% midpoint for four-year schools.

How to find an affordable school that offers a good return on investment

In new research, Itzkowitz highlights 10 schools that are true engines of economic mobility: They enroll the highest proportion of students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds and "provide them with a strong return on their educational investment." Six of the top 10 are in the California State University system. At the top: California State University-Los Angeles.

According to the Scorecard, that school's average annual cost is a miniscule $2,768, its median earnings top the midpoint and its graduation rate holds steady at 68% for all students, as well as just Pell Grant recipients.

While we're here, let's scroll down to the "Financial Aid & Debt" section:

California State University-Los Angeles financial aid
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

One sign of a reasonably priced school is that a relatively small portion of students have to take out federal student loans. At Cal State L.A., just 17% of full-time undergrads had to borrow, and graduates tend to leave with $13,219 in federal student loan debt. Itzkowitz found that the school's low-income students, though, generally leave with far less debt and are able to recoup their modest costs within just a year.

You'll find one more fascinating statistic a little further down, under "Typical Earnings." It's the percentage of a school's former students, six years after they enrolled, who are earning more than the typical high school graduate. Here, the rate's solid: 69%.

California State University-Los Angeles typical earnings
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

For a point of comparison, Itzkowitz looked up a Florida-based private, for-profit chain called Florida Career College. We clicked on the Boynton Beach campus page in the Scorecard.

Among certificate schools, its average annual cost is about $12,000 above the midpoint.

Florida Career College - Boynton Beach cost
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

It's possible the certificate is worth that premium. Let's scroll down to "Typical Earnings."

Florida Career College-Boynton Beach median earnings
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

Earnings here are below the midpoint, and just 31% of former students (who received federal aid) earn more than a typical high school grad six years after enrolling. That's concerning.

A new analysis of the Scorecard by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found that, at 30% of postsecondary schools, "more than half of their students 10 years after enrollment are earning less than a high school graduate."

When asked to explain Florida Career College's poor performance compared to typical high school graduates, a school spokesperson questioned the federal data, calling it "blatantly misleading." They noted that the Education Department includes a caveat about the Scorecard's earnings data, which says, "This comparison group of self-identified high school graduates should be viewed with caution."

The department says some of the high school graduates in this statistic may have completed apprenticeships and/or industry certifications that could increase pay. Similarly, some high school grads may have much more work experience than recent college students.

In short, the Scorecard is most useful – and accurate – as a collection of numbers that, in aggregate, create an impression of a school's strengths and weaknesses.

It's risky leaning too heavily on just one or two data points.

New admissions test policies made it into the update

One last nugget – something the department just added: Check out the page for Bates College, a highly-selective four-year school in Maine.

At the bottom, click on "Test Scores & Acceptance." There you'll find Bates' acceptance rate, 12%, and new language about what admissions tests the school does (or does not) require:

Bates College testing requirements.
Department of Education College Scorecard / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR

And that's just skimming the surface of the College Scorecard. Now it's your turn.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.