A student studies on the UNL campus. UNL’s cost of attendance listed on the scorecard, $17,784, is in the middle of its comparison schools, including those in the Big Ten.

Students and parents looking into colleges may find themselves swamped in numbers and questions.

What’s the cost of this, that and those? Where does the college rank in this survey and that guidebook? If a student has trouble, will he have the support to get him through to graduation? When she’s finished, will there be a job waiting? What kind of job?

The federal government for several years has produced a plethora of data in its College Scorecard. The scorecard began under President Barack Obama and has been carried forward by President Donald Trump’s administration, with some information added.

But these numbers, from thousands of colleges and universities across the country, tell only part of the story. Every student’s circumstances and college experience differ.

Dylan Raney, a recent Papillion-La Vista High School graduate, said there were times when the amount of information in his college search seemed imposing. There were so many sources that Raney didn’t recall if the scorecard was one of them. Many other sites contain information about colleges, such as College Navigator, CollegeData and collegeresults.org.

Raney said he considered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Hastings College and the University of Nebraska at Kearney. In the end, he said, the decision wasn’t hard.

UNK has the kind of information technology and cybersecurity programs he’s looking for. Plus, the campus just seemed right.

Sign up for World-Herald news alerts

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

“It felt pretty friendly,” Raney said. “It felt like it could be a home.”

looks at numerous factors, including a school’s cost of attendance, graduation rates, median salaries and the debt students face when they leave.

The scorecard draws from sources such as federal financial aid programs and tax information. Cost of attendance reflects tuition, fees, books, supplies, and room and board for full-time, first-time undergraduates who receive federal aid. Therefore, it’s not a look at the entire student body.

Scott Seevers, a vice president at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, said he has no objections to the College Scorecard as long as people know it’s a starting point and not the finish line.

“The data tells us a story, but it doesn’t tell the full story,” Seevers said. Everyone should seek far more information, he said.

He said the scorecard is both better and worse than U.S. News, one of the best known resources for information about colleges. The scorecard does not rank schools. U.S. News does. 

U.S. News uses “much of that same data,” he said, but adds some information, such as the opinions of a college by administrators at other schools. The administrators aren’t always deeply familiar with the schools they rank, he said. “Once again, the conclusions are generally accurate but always imperfect.”

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), Seevers said, and apply to colleges (it costs nothing to do so at Concordia and many other schools). And, Seevers said, visit campuses.

It has to be a fit,” said Mary Chase, a vice provost at Creighton University.

Here's how schools in Nebraska and Iowa stack up in several key areas in the College Scorecard. This article compares regional colleges’ data to similar universities or colleges’ sports conferences.

Annual cost after financial aid

Pinning down annual costs can be difficult. It can be tough to anticipate how much a student will spend on late-night pizzas, that memorable party, the spur-of-the-moment trip to see U2 or an Arby’s obsession.

UNO’s annual average cost for first-time, full-time undergraduates is low compared with UNL’s and UNK’s, and it ranks a bit better than the middle of its peer schools.

Peer schools enable the NU Board of Regents to compare faculty salaries and other things to similar kinds of universities. UNO’s average cost, according to the scorecard, is $13,173 after financial aid is subtracted.

“A lot of it is trying to keep higher education accountable,” Omar Correa, a UNO associate vice chancellor, said of the scorecard.

Correa said there are “a lot of variables that make it a little bit more challenging” to compare schools. Costs, salaries and debt are individual matters that hinge on things like financial aid, field of study and occupation.

UNL’s cost of attendance listed on the scorecard, $17,784, is in the middle of its comparison schools, including those in the Big Ten. UNK’s $16,644 places it near the high end of its comparison schools, including those in its athletic conference.

Penn State’s cost, listed at $30,373, is the highest by far in the Big Ten. A Penn State spokeswoman said, among other things, that tuition rates are dependent on state support. “Generous state support usually results in lower tuition,” she said through an email. “Pennsylvania has annually remained ranked between 46th and 49th in the nation in its per capita support of higher education.”

Creighton University’s annual net cost is high — $30,427 — compared with most of the 68 schools examined for this article. Creighton’s cost in the scorecard also is higher than eight other private colleges in Nebraska as well as Drake University in Des Moines and Northwestern University in the Chicago area.

But Creighton’s average annual salary 10 years after enrollment is favorable, as is reflected below. “We look beyond just the cost of tuition,” Chase said. “We prepare our students not just for their first job, but for a career of experiences that span more than 40 years.”

She said it’s less of an expense than it is an investment. “It is about a life lived well when you come to Creighton.”

Graduation rate after six years; admission standards

UNL placed itself in competitive company when it joined the Big Ten. Being in the Big Ten means UNL gets compared in more ways than just athletics with some of the top public universities in the country, such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

And when matched against those competitors, as well as UNL’s peers selected by the NU Board of Regents, UNL comes in next-to-last place in this category. UNL’s graduation rate, at 67% after six years, is ahead of only Kansas’ 63%.

Three of the regents’ peer schools for UNL — Colorado, Colorado State and Missouri — did only 1 or 2 percentage points better than UNL.

Iowa State undergraduates’ typical ACT score range, 22 to 28, is about the same as UNL’s (22 to 29). Iowa State’s graduation rate is 7 percentage points higher than UNL’s.

UNL says it’s working to increase its graduation rate. “We have made good strides in improving our graduation rates, and are continuing to put new programs in place to ensure our students succeed,” UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said in a written statement. “One approach we won’t take is to become more exclusive by limiting students who can apply. For 150 years, we’ve been Nebraska’s university, and we are committed to providing access to the young people of this state.”

UNL spokeswoman Leslie Reed said that 15 years ago, UNL’s graduation rate was 59%. The university, she said, has created strategies to get more students through freshman year and thus improve its graduation rate.

Chart: Typical ACT range of incoming students

Note: Data not available for Wayne St.

The typical range of ACT scores at UNL is lower than those at most of its comparison schools and in some instances far lower. There is a clear link between high ACT scores and high graduation rates.

UNL’s graduation rate exceeds that of UNO and UNK. But when compared with peer colleges, UNK’s graduation rate of 59% is near the top of the batch.

“We feel really good about it,” said Dusty Newton, UNK’s director of admissions. UNO’s graduation rate of 46% tilts toward the low end of comparison colleges.

Bellevue University showed a graduation rate of 24%. The university said many of its students are working adults and transfer students who wouldn’t show up in these statistics. Bellevue also showed an annual cost of $11,938, which is among the lowest of the 68 colleges examined.

Median salary of students 10 years later

Creighton shines in this category. Of all of the colleges examined for this story, Creighton’s average annual salary, 10 years after students enroll in the college, is fifth-highest among 68 schools, behind Northwestern, Michigan, Illinois and Maryland. Creighton’s salary weighs in at $59,700. “The success of our alumni speaks volumes,” Chase said.

Concordia’s average salary of $40,100 is fairly low compared with some other private colleges in Nebraska, plus Drake. Seevers said: “We have a lot of students that go into education. And we’re proud of that.”

Education is Concordia’s biggest program, he said, and teachers’ salaries often don’t compete with those of many business majors. Good teachers “are there because of the people that they impact, and they get their rewards in many different ways,” Seevers said.

UNL’s salary of $46,400 is next-to-last among its peers, better only than Ohio State’s. UNO’s average salary is $44,200, in the middle of its group, and UNK’s $41,300 is higher than most of its peers.

UNL spokeswoman Reed said many factors can come into play “that have nothing to do with quality.” She cited a low cost of living in Nebraska, the fact that the data is based only on students receiving federal aid and possibly the choice of professions made by many UNL graduates.

Nebraska’s three state colleges — Peru, Chadron and Wayne — showed salaries under $40,000.

Typical student debt

Student debt is a growing concern for those in higher education.

The scorecard said its federal student loan data “can provide useful information for students and families concerned about borrowing for college ... ”

Midland University in Fremont had the highest median student federal debt of any of the 68 schools examined for this article — $27,000. Midland representatives said their university has many first-generation students from families of modest income, and they have to borrow to attend college.

Midland President Jody Horner said a college degree has great value. “Whether it’s $23,000 of debt or $27,000, that’s a good investment,” Horner said. “We view it as an investment and a good reason to take on debt.”

UNO’s average undergraduate student debt is the lowest, $19,500, among its comparison schools. Bellevue was lower still at $19,271.

UNL’s student debt among its peers leaned toward the high side at $21,788. UNK’s, $20,980, was a bit lower than the majority of its peers.

Creighton’s average student debt is comparatively high at $25,300, but four of the Nebraska private schools, as well as Drake, show higher student debt rates.

The three state colleges have fairly low student debt rates, with Chadron State’s the lowest — $18,500.

Paul Turman, chancellor of the Nebraska state college system, said measuring all schools on the same playing field “leads to misrepresentation.” But Turman said that generally, the state colleges’ data in the scoreboard reflects what he would expect. And it’s good, he said, that the federal government provides the information to the public.

Concordia’s Seevers said prospective students should consider all of the data they can get. Ultimately, he said, they should “make a decision informed by the data but never dictated by the data.”

Chart: Comparing Nebraska schools and their peers

The following chart compares Nebraska universities and many of their peer schools. Salary indicates average reported salary 10 years after enrolling, debt indicates student-related debt and ACT indicates the typical range of incoming students.

Note: * - Crete campus