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The government's new College Scorecard helps you pick a college. Here's how to use it.

The federal College Scorecard search engine can be helpful, but only if you know how to use it.
The federal College Scorecard search engine can be helpful, but only if you know how to use it.
(Shutterstock)

Choosing a college can be a complex — even overwhelming — process. And the federal government is trying to help with an updated version of its College Scorecard. This search engine highlights colleges' costs, financial aid, and student debt, as well as how much students earn after graduation.

The search engine was accompanied by a broader release of data for researchers. Outside groups have used this to create their own search engines, as think tanks and other groups have been doing with government data for years.

If you or your kids are trying to choose a college, these are valuable resources. But more information isn't always better information. In order for the College Scorecard to be useful, you have to understand how to use it. And it's important to know that the data has some flaws.

Here are three important questions the College Scorecard can answer fairly well — and a fourth question where the government data isn't as helpful as it might appear.

1) How much will you have to pay?

The average cost by family income to attend the University of Virginia.
(College Scorecard)

College pricing is confusing: Financial aid means that the sticker price isn't what most families pay to attend. Indeed, lower-income families often pay only a fraction of the official tuition.

But financial aid policies vary hugely from college to college. Some give their grants and scholarships mostly to students from low-income families; others use them to attract students with good grades and test scores, meaning that some aid flows to students from wealthier backgrounds.

Each college's individual page on the College Scorecard breaks out the cost by family income. These numbers are still averages, but they can give you an idea of how much financial aid might be available if you're accepted.

There are ways to get a more precise estimate. Colleges are required to provide a net price calculator, where students can input some information about their family's finances and get an estimate of how much financial aid they'll receive. The online College Abacus lets you get estimates for many colleges at once based on this information. But the College Scorecard doesn't require any information in order to give at least a general idea of the price you'll actually pay.

Students from families making less than $40,000 per year are likely to get Pell Grants, the main federal financial aid program for low-income students. ProPublica's Debt by Degrees project draws on the College Scorecard data to put aid for low-income students in context, showing, for example, whether the price they pay is relatively high or low compared with what other colleges charge.

2) How many students graduate?

Graduation rates at the University of Virginia.
(College Scorecard)

The most important thing about picking a college, particularly if you're going to take out student loans, is how likely you are to graduate. The College Scorecard includes information on how many students graduate within six years (at a four-year college) or three years (at a two-year college) and shows how those compare with the national average.

The federal government typically uses six-year graduation rates for four-year colleges. But taking longer than four years to complete a degree can end up being very expensive, because every additional semester requires extra tuition. College Results Online, a search engine from the nonprofit Education Trust, includes both four-year and six-year graduation rates, as well as information on how many students transfer.

The federal graduation rate counts only students attending college full-time and for the first time. This means that it can be badly flawed for colleges that don't enroll mostly students attending straight out of high school. Community colleges argue that the official graduation rate does a terrible job measuring their performance, because many of their students aren't first-time, full-time students, and because some of their students transfer to a four-year college successfully without formally graduating.

ProPublica's search tool highlights graduation rates specifically for students from low-income families who receive Pell Grants, who typically graduate at slightly lower rates than the population as a whole. That's valuable information, but unfortunately the government data is badly flawed — Pell Grant graduation rates are off by up to 59 percentage points.

3) How much debt do graduates (and dropouts) have?

Part of the College Scorecard's information on student debt.
(College Scorecard)

Even though many students and families are concerned about high levels of student debt, it can be difficult to figure out what your monthly payment will be — the most important number to consider when you're borrowing to pay for college.

The College Scorecard includes a wealth of information about how student loan borrowers fare. It lists their typical debt, the average monthly payment, and whether, within three years of starting to pay their loan back, they're actually making progress and paying down the principal.

ProPublica's search engine, based on the College Scorecard, highlights dropouts' debt.
(ProPublica)

While no one thinks they're going to end up dropping out of college, it does happen. ProPublica's database, which draws on the College Scorecard data, also includes the typical amount a college dropout owes. That's important information to keep in mind, particularly if you're looking at a college with relatively low graduation rates.

4) How much am I going to earn?

This is one of the biggest pieces of data on the College Scorecard. It's one of the three data points highlighted in the search results, before you even click through to see the rest of the information.

Unfortunately, it also suggests that colleges have a lot more control over students' earnings than is actually the case. Colleges themselves are responsible for only about 5 percent of the variation in alumni earnings at four-year colleges, according to the government's technical report on the College Scorecard data.

The earnings figure combines students who graduate with students who don't, meaning that earnings appear lower at colleges where more students drop out. It also only applies to students who got federal financial aid to attend college — a group that tends to be slightly poorer than college students as a whole. Students from poorer families, on average, earn less after graduation than students from richer families, as these charts from the technical report show:

Post-graduation earnings correlate with income.
(Education Department)

But the most important flaw in the data is that what you major in matters as much as, if not more than, where you go to college. There's nearly as much variation within colleges as among them when it comes to earnings. A petroleum engineer and an English major might have attended the same school, but their lifetime earnings are going to look very different.

The website PayScale ranks earnings by major at different colleges. Six states — Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia — also have this data available, but only for students who stay in the state after they graduate.

The good news is that future versions of the College Scorecard are supposed to include earnings by program of study. But until then, it's important to remember that college majors really matter, and that the College Scorecard can't tell you everything.