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College Reality Check Tool

Larry Blumenstyk

by Larry Blumenstyk, J.D., IECA (New Jersey)

The Chronicle of Higher Education has released its initial publicly available version of its College Reality Check tool. Although I never tried to use the College Scorecard released by the White House, I have now used College Reality Check and would like to share my experience.

Like many of our members, even as I write this on April 23, we have client families struggling to make final decisions and ruminating over whether to pursue waitlist schools or just go out and buy the sweatshirt for one of the schools that have sent unqualified acceptance letters. I found College Reality Check to be useful to me in providing consultative guidance to these struggling clients; relying on information of a different sort than our office was considering with clients throughout the admissions process.

One family is deciding among acceptances to University of Delaware, University of New Hampshire, Loyola of Maryland, and Ithaca College. In a recent meeting we reviewed data available about professors, student teacher ratios, retention, graduation rates, and other factors. On that basis, two of the schools were eliminated. Now I have run a comparison of the two remaining schools through College Reality Check. The site permits a side-by-side comparison of up to five colleges, and when I ran the comparison there was a clearly available option to email the results directly to the client.

Another student was accepted at several colleges but waitlisted at two of his highest preferences, the most selective colleges on his list. He will deposit at his favorite among the acceptances but is confused about the two waitlists. The two waitlist colleges are Wake Forest and Babson, very close to one another in the academic profile of their students but very different in spirit. I ran the College Reality Check comparison of all three colleges and sent it to the family so they could have additional information while considering their plans to advocate for admission off the waitlists.

One young woman was enjoying accepted student visits at both SMU and Furman over the past week. By purely statistical measures of selectivity, SMU is the “better” outcome. However, Furman has offered this young woman a significant tuition discount. Running the comparison was quite a revelation.

I also couldn’t resist the temptation of checking out the college where our own daughter is a junior, as against its peers. The information was interesting, but unfortunately it did not assure me she would be able to support us in our dotage.

I can report a little information about the origin of this site and its projections for the future. The initial project was a Chronicle venture undertaken in cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its initial iteration was a less sophisticated tool, undertaken before the White House initiative (The College Scorecard). The Foundation then decided to fund a more sophisticated tool—the one now available. Earnings data for this tool is mined from “Payscale,” a private company which produces a giant crowdsourced database of earnings. College Reality Check provides four-year, five-year, and six-year graduation rates for the colleges in its database and for its comparisons. We should find the College Reality Check tool further improved and enriched as time goes on.

Right now it has some advantages over the Scorecard: It has a user friendly search function; it allows easy direct comparison of up to five colleges; and it is very simple to print, download, or share (via email or otherwise) the results. We can expect ongoing improvements and enhancements (this is a “soft launch”). The Chronicle is anxious to get comments—and IECA members might be among the best for providing input. A feedback link is provided on the Web site.



18 Responses to College Reality Check Tool

  1. Joan Casey says:

    Larry–Thanks for letting us know about this revamped tool. I plan to try it this morning. — Joan

  2. Alan Haas says:

    Many thanks, Larry, for sharing this interesting resource. This is a real pro at work on behalf of his clients, his colleagues and the colleges to effect a better match.

  3. Jan Lerner Esposito says:

    Larry, thanks for sharing your use of the site. It sounds like this is a terrific tool at just the right time. Many families like to see the “numbers” in making their final decisions. Thanks for taking the time to check this out and report back to all of us!

  4. Judy Zodda says:

    Thanks Larry for more details of this informative tool!

  5. Susan Hansen says:


    I just looked at the site and entered five hypothetical schools into the search. What an excellent tool!
    Thanks so much for sharing.
    Sue Hansen

  6. Larry: IECA members are fond of telling students and parents they should ignore rankings, yet here is another ranking system. This one appears pretty good and practical, but the devil is in the details. I have a student who is trying to decide between Haverford, Vassar, Wesleyan, and Bucknell (which has offered her $20k per year). So, I just ran these colleges through this system. Bucknell comes out on top! Of course, they have the highest early career salaries because they have an undergraduate engineering program, the other three do not. My student will not be studying engineering, so it would be interesting to see how Bucknell comes out if I could extract all their engineering graduates. Haverford and Wesleyan have a lot of graduates who go off and try to save the world for a few years before they come back to reality and matriculate at an elite MBA program or law school. By mid-career, their earnings are higher than Bucknell graduates. I will confess that I use an alternative ranking system for situations like this. The Center for College Affordability and Accountability has been doing this for years for rankings published annually in Forbes Magazine. Their criteria are: ratings in (17.5%); retention rates (10%); avg. 4 year debt load (17.5%); 4 year graduation rates (17.5%); percent of students winning national academic awards (7.5%); avg. salaries at mid career (15%); and percent of alumni in Who’s Who (15%). Using this ranking system, Vassar, Wesleyan, and Haverford come out at 20, 21, and 27 respectively, while Bucknell falls to 56. I am not sure why the Council on Higher Education felt the need to “reinvent the wheel”, rather than working with The Center for College Affordability and Accountability to develop an even more robust system. Maybe some of their more influential members didn’t like they way they were faring with The Center for College Affordability and Accountability rankings. In any case, it still comes down to a matter of “fit”. As you point out, Wake Forest and Babson are totally different undergraduate experiences, as are SMU and Furman. I guess the good news is that no tool will ever replace our guidance and judgment for nurturing students who will have a good chance to be successful at age 35, etc., not just age 22.

    • Jeff Levy says:

      Jim, I would suggest that a ranking system that assigns 40% of its weight to, Who’s Who, and national academic awards definitely needs its wheel reinvented.

      • Jim Yannopoulos says:

        Jeff: I was not promoting The Center for College Affordability and Accountability as perfect and without need of improvement, but what the Chronicle of Higher Education has come up with seems even less evolved. Sure, the features are “neat”, but the comparisons are worthless if one is not aware of how they are skewed by the underlying data, as in the example I gave. I recognize this approach may come across as too consumerist for many academic folk, who may object to professors being rated, etc., but the colleges have brought it upon themselves by charging $60k a year and bragging in their literature about being listed in the Princeton Review’s “Top 377 Colleges”. For example, parents and students have a right to know which ones are littered with history and political science professors who don’t even know who the Prime Minister of Great Britain is. With regard to national academic awards, I find it is important for my clients to learn that Juniata College produces more Fulbright Fellows and Goldwater Scholars than highly selective, more expensive, snobby college X!

    • Jim,
      Well you and I surely agree on the bottom line – it’s a tool and our job is to be something different, and hoperfully better, than a tool.

      • Jim Yannopoulos says:

        I absolutely agree. The best thing about any of these tools is that they encourage us to get our clients to think about their ROI for college. Even if they conclude that their ROI is something about the potential life-changing nature of the experience that they cannot quantify, at least we have gotten them to articulate that and not just blindly choose an expensive, prestigious option.

    • Sue Hansen says:

      Good point, Jim, regarding career salaries. You almost have to “tease” out all the STEM majors from the career earnings data to get a realistic assessment of a particular college as the quant majors typically command higher starting salaries. It probably would be best if their was a tool that reported specific degree earnings and I would be interested to know if one exists.
      Regardless, both metrics provide meaningful starting points.

  7. Jeff Levy says:

    Larry, thanks very much for your thorough report and for acquainting us with this wonderful new resource. You highlight one of its great features–the ability to email college comparisons directly to the student. I also like that one can “read more” in any of the three areas and receive an instant education on college net cost, graduation rates, and student debt. One thing missing from the college debt section, however, is the ability to compare the average indebtedness of borrowers at each school, a metric which is readily available in other places and which will hopefully be included in future versions.

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