College of St. Mary officials say a scorecard that the Obama administration released this year doesn't do justice to the Omaha college and its mission to serve low-income and nontraditional students.
So they've worked up their own version and hope it will be adopted across the country by other colleges that serve similar students.
The revised scorecard is displayed alongside the federal one at the College of St. Mary website, said Maryanne Stevens, president of the private Catholic women's college. It is part of the college's effort to join a national discussion about higher education's costs and its value.
“I've been very concerned about these conversations about affordability and transparency,” Stevens said in a recent interview. “Our scorecard is our attempt to be transparent about outcomes.”
The federal scorecard grades every college on four factors: costs, graduation rate, student loan default rate and median borrowing. A fifth factor, employment rates, remains under development.
The College of St. Mary version makes two key changes:
» Its graduation rate includes transfer students who completed their degrees within six years of enrolling, reflecting that a significant number of its students start at other colleges but wind up at College of St. Mary to finish. The change puts the College of St. Mary graduation rate at 56.2 percent instead of 30.4 percent.
» Its costs do not include room and board, reflecting that more than half of its students live off campus. That puts the typical out-of-pocket cost for College of St. Mary — minus scholarships, work-study, institutional aid and state and federal grants — at $11,567 per year instead of $18,383 per year. College of St. Mary's full price for the 2013-14 academic year will be $24,830.
The new scorecard was unveiled at a recent meeting in Dallas of a coalition for small private colleges that serve a large share of low-income students.
College of St. Mary was one of 11 founding members of the “Yes We Must” coalition, which began in 2010. That group, which has grown to 32 members, is composed of private colleges with no more than 5,000 students, at least half of whom are eligible for Pell Grants. Its organizers are seeking more members from about 130 similar colleges across the country.
The scorecard and the coalition are part of a somewhat surprising reality: Small, private colleges educate a higher share of low-income students even though they charge significantly higher tuition than their state-supported counterparts.
In fact, College of St. Mary's percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students is the highest of any four-year college in the state, according to the Nebraska Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Pell Grants are financial aid awarded by the federal government based on family income.
During the past three years the percentage of Pell-eligible students at College of St. Mary has ranged from 48 percent to 58 percent.
Part of what is happening is that middle-income families, which do not qualify for Pell Grant assistance, gravitate toward the lower price tag of state-supported schools.
Christine Pharr, vice president of academic affairs at College of St. Mary, said serving low-income students is part of her college's historic mission of providing opportunity to women.
Two thirds of the enrollment transferred to College of St. Mary from other institutions, she said. Some left larger campuses after a semester or two. Others are older women who want to finish the degree they started years ago.
In fact, transfer students often are more likely to qualify for Pell Grants than are first-time, full-time students. In fall 2012, 30 percent of first-time, full-time students were eligible for Pell Grants, said Sarah Kottich, vice president of finance, while 51 percent of new transfer students were eligible for Pell Grant assistance.
Pharr said College of St. Mary's aim in revising the college scorecard is for better “mission fit.”
“Students need a place where they can learn and be comfortable,” she said. “You can have a high graduation rate and low debt, but if a student isn't learning, that's not going to solve your problems.”
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