OPINION: In its simplicity, college website misleads students of color

Walter M. Kimbrough just finished 10 years as president of Dillard University in New Orleans, and will spend the next year at home in Atlanta as the interim executive director of the Black Men’s Research Institute at Morehouse College.

ExploreMorehouse College creates institute for Black male research

In this guest column, Kimbrough faults the new Georgia Degrees Pay website for oversimplifying the payoff students get from campuses in the state, especially the outcomes for students of color.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained: The University System of Georgia last week launched a website that allows college-bound students to compare the cost to attend its 26 colleges and universities. The site also provides salary data for graduates by school and by major, plus graduation and loan default rates and the percent of students who keep their HOPE Scholarship after the first year.

By Walter M. Kimbrough

The University System of Georgia unveiled a new website, much like the College Scorecard released by the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration in 2015. The original scorecard was offered as an alternative to college rankings, led by U.S. News & World Report, which then President Barack Obama said incentivized colleges to game the system.

The new website by the University System, called Georgia Degrees Pay, is the latest attempt to quantify the results of higher education from a consumer perspective. The site allows for students and parents to compare institutions to determine which has the best outcomes, future earnings, and how much students borrow. It is billed as a “one-stop shop” that is easy to use and transparent. In short, it’s simple.

And that’s the problem.

This site, like so many others, relies solely on easy-to-define inputs without factoring in the complexity of lived experiences. Sites like these do a disservice to students and families, because in the quest to create something that is simple and easy to use, it ends up misinforming and deceiving.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Let’s take a hypothetical student that is Pell Grant eligible, which means the student comes from a family earning less than $40,000 a year. First-time, full-time Pell recipient students nationally graduate at a rate 16 percentage points lower than non-Pell students. In fact, the more Pell students a school has, the lower their graduation rate. This is a variable that is rarely discussed. People who will make decisions about the effectiveness of Georgia Tech and University of Georgia (my undergraduate alma mater), with graduation rates of 92% and 87% respectively, miss the fact that Tech is 11% Pell and UGA 16% Pell, a significant factor in outcomes.

Having wealthier student bodies also has long-term impacts on earnings. Students whose families can support them are able to accept and complete unpaid internships. Inside Higher Ed, covering the 2021 student survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, noted “internships tend to advantage students who are already advantaged — essentially those who can afford to work for cheap or free.” The survey disaggregated the data to learn that while 74% of white students held unpaid internships, only 10% of Latino students and 8% of Black students did.

My hometown of Atlanta is No. 1 for income inequality in America. With white families having a median household income of almost $84,000 in Atlanta, compared to just $28,000 for Black families, it’s easy to see how these students could easily get derailed from completing school, let alone complete a high-value unpaid internship in Washington, D.C.

Disaggregation breaks up the data by diverse groups to determine if everyone has the same outcomes. Georgia Degrees doesn’t do it. When comparing two schools, a Black student might see that one school’s graduation rate is 10 percentage points higher than another and conclude it’s better. But she would have to use the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System site to know that for Black students like her, their graduation rate is 20 percentage points below the campus average, which is among the worst cases at a USG institution. Naming the institution defeats my point, which is students and parents need to dig deeper to find the best fit.

Shaun Harper, director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, released a 50-state report card in 2019 on Black students at public colleges and universities. Looking at these institutions through an equity lens, it allows students and parents to take into consideration factors that also impact success. Does the campus racially look like the state? How are faculty represented? Is there equity in completion based on race?

For the nation, the average grade on a 4.0 scale was 2.0. For Georgia, it was 2.16 with poor grades for student bodies that look like Georgia and having faculty that look like them in a proportional manner. These, too, are factors that impact student success, and simple websites which continue to ignore factors like race and socioeconomic status could lead people to make the wrong conclusions about the best fit.

And while Georgia Degrees Pay suggests students compare schools in the same sector, the three public historically Black colleges and universities (including Albany State, where I once worked), one public predominantly Black institution (Clayton State), and Georgia State University (my doctoral alma mater), where Black students are the largest minority group and half of the students are Pell eligible, all underperform their peers using the site as is. Using diverse variables paints a more accurate picture of these institutions.

While I understand the interest in trying to quantify student success as a service to consumers, higher education is not a commodity you simply purchase and receive. Socioeconomic status, need to work full time, gender or race could all play a role in your ability to complete college. These are complex factors which require a sophisticated approach to help families make the best decision.

Unfortunately, Georgia Degrees Pay only delivers deception.