And when it comes to tough grades for the graders, which is what the U.S. Department of Education has done with the nation's public and private colleges, the schools respond like students and complain that the test is unfair. The Obama administration, seeking to spotlight low-rated schools whose students run up high debt, wanted to create a grading system for colleges, like the rankings done annually by U.S. News and World Report.
It abandoned the effort after fierce lobbying by the higher education establishment, primarily private institutions. But it prevailed in developing a detailed College Scorecard that addresses some challenging cost-benefit issues that students face.
The benefit, for most students, is a good job with good pay, and the College Scorecard makes it easy to see where graduates do well. Leading the class in Michigan is Kettering University in Flint, an engineering school with just 1,640 students, where the median pay 10 years after enrollment was $74,900. Tuition is $30,683, and you'd better like math.
The next best post-college salaries were for graduates at another engineering school, Michigan Technological University in Houghton. There tuition is $14,446 a year and salary is $60,100. In addition to math, students there better like snow.
At the bottom of the salary rankings are schools that prompted the College Scorecard. Among Michigan's lowest performers is the International Academy of Design and Technology in Troy, a for-profit school where most of the students study visual arts. Tuition is $17,208, the salary after attending is just $25,200. The typical students leaves the college $42,103 in debt, most of it federal loans. And only 20 percent of students graduate within six years, which is very low.
Reviews of more traditional schools like Michigan State University are generally favorable. Not only is MSU academically strong, but because it's a public college, tuition is relatively low. The most prominent measurements on the Scorecard are average annual cost ($16,789), graduation rate (48 percent) and average annual salary ($34,343); for MSU the results are $16,507, 78 percent graduating and $49,800 in salary.
The Scorecard calculated the typical total debt for an MSU undergraduate borrower at $25,714, with a typical monthly payment of $285. Nearly half — 48 percent — receive some form of federal loans. Considering that the average salary of MSU students is $15,457 higher than the national average, it makes sense that they would repay their loans at a better than average rate, and they do: 88 percent versus the average of 67 percent.
Comparisons with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor are always telling, and based on the College Scorecard it's a better school, Graduates earn more — $57,900 a year — and the annual cost to attend is lower: $16,287. Fewer grads used student loans (37 percent) and the socioeconomic diversity grade — the percentage of families with income less than $40,000 and receiving Pell Grants — is 16 percent. At MSU it's 24 percent.
And no, the Department of Education did not include a sports performance measurement.
What about other four-year colleges in the area? The grades are more Cs than Bs.
Davenport University, based in Grand Rapids but with a significant presence in downtown Lansing, has an average annual cost of $17,421, but the College Scorecard pegs the graduation rate as just 37 percent and the salary 10 years after enrolling at $29,000. The typical student debt for graduates is $30,250, which they repay at a lower-than-average rate. Just 56 percent of Davenport grads have repaid at least $1 of principal on their loans after three years, which is the measurement used by the government in the Scorecard.
But it's important to recognize that Davenport students are different from those at MSU. Almost two-thirds of them attend part time and generally have lower family incomes than students at schools like MSU. The socio-economic diversity score for Davenport grads is 53 percent.
If there is an average school in the region it is Olivet College. Small, private, operated by the United Church of Christ, the average annual cost is $18,341, with a graduation rate of 43 percent and salary after attending of $34,100. Total student debt is $27,000, the repayment rate is 73 percent and 80 percent of students receive federal loans. About half of the student body of 1,016 get income based Pell Grants. The socio-economic diversity rate is 46 percent.
Albion College's Scorecard has a high average annual cost: $23,479, a graduation rate of 73 percent and a salary of $45,100 annually. The profile suggests a wealthier student body, with 62 percent receiving federal loans and a well above average 92 percent paying down student debt.
The Scorecard also graded community colleges. The numbers reflect a very different institution from four years schools. They cost less and serve more part-time students from lower income families. With all of the numbers and averages, what the Scorecard doesn't measure is the quality of education. Students at LCC can do as well, learn as much as students at MSU. And even with all of the College Scorecard numbers, its worth noting that large numbers of students outperform the averages, that they complete school, leave with low debt and will be paid better salaries.