Graduation rates at seven of Long Island's four-year nonprofit colleges are below the national averages of their public and private peer institutions, according to the federal government's new College Scorecard.
The U.S. Department of Education website, launched last month, posts graduation rates for full-time undergraduates achieved over six years -- a figure that prospective students and families look to as a measure of student academic success and satisfaction. Data on typical costs, loan default rates and median loan repayment figures for four-year and two-year colleges across the country also are provided, in a format that allows quick searches by institution.
While such college statistics can be found in various consumer publications, the scorecard uses Education Department data, from information the schools are required to submit to participate in federal student-aid programs. The website is whitehouse.gov/issues/ education/higher-education/ college-score-card.
Long Island institutions with graduation rates above the national averages for their peer institutions were Adelphi University, Stony Brook University, St. Joseph's College, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and Webb Institute.
Some higher-education experts voiced support of the website as a user-friendly way to assess and compare colleges, but the scorecard drew strong criticism from college leaders on the Island who argue the numbers are an incomplete indicator of overall student success.
"While we could do better, these numbers don't give a true picture of what's going on at the campuses," said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, president of the College at Old Westbury, where the freshman retention rate has nearly quadrupled since he arrived at the campus in 1999.
"We enroll a lot of transfer students and part-timers, and many of our students are the first in their families to go to college," he said, "so you can't compare us to schools where students come from a long family history of higher education."
Officials at several schools -- including Farmingdale, Five Towns, Hofstra, Molloy, LIU Post and St. Joseph's -- said the College Scorecard doesn't gauge other aspects of their institutions, such as students' individual growth and experiences, faculty involvement and community engagement.
At Hofstra, the Island's largest private university, the graduation rate is trending upward and is higher than 60 percent this year, officials there said. The most recent data aren't reflected on the scorecard site.
"It can only really be a part of what you look at when you look at a school," said Melissa Connolly, Hofstra's vice president of university relations.
The grad rates track full-time undergraduates entering their first college. Several local college leaders took issue with the scorecard's methodology, noting that transfer students and part-time students, a significant population at some Island colleges, are not counted in the graduation rates -- even if they graduate.
"Students change colleges for many reasons: family issues, health reasons, new academic pursuits. Categorizing these students as statistically unsuccessful does not accurately reflect the reality," said Lucia Cepriano, provost of Farmingdale State College, where the graduation rate is 39.9 percent. Cepriano said the school's rate would be 10 percent to 15 percent higher if transfer and part-time students were counted.
National experts said the graduation rates will vary depending on the type of institution, and that Long Island colleges are not alone in having graduation rates below the national average.
"You can't expect all the colleges in the nation to have the graduation rates that the most selective schools do," said Roland King, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 1,000 U.S. institutions of higher education, from major research universities to performing and visual arts institutions.
"I'm certainly not apologizing for schools who are making promises and not delivering on quality, though," King said. "This is an area where we can all agree that more work is needed."
Scorecard users are able to plug in the name of the college and pull up a dashboard-type display profile that includes graduation rate, net price, the median amount that the average student borrows, and the monthly loan payment that the debt would carry.
College acceptance letters for students who applied under regular-decision deadlines are being issued now, and many high school seniors and their families are in the process of selecting schools, while high school juniors are taking SAT and ACT tests and visiting campuses.
"Even high school sophomores may be coming up with lists of campuses they want to consider. It makes sense for the federal government to provide families with easy-to-access information about college," said Laura L. Anglin, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, an association of more than 100 private, not-for-profit colleges and universities across New York State.
Anglin applauded efforts to increase transparency but agreed with college leaders, many of whom are talking with members of Congress and the Department of Education on "how to build on this first draft," she said.
"We really see this iteration of the scorecard as a Version 1.0," Anglin said.
Since its Feb. 18 release, the College Scorecard site has recorded more than 200,000 unique visitors, federal education officials said.
It is among several know-before-you-go government initiatives that aim to hold colleges and universities to quality and cost benchmarks -- particularly for those that accept financial aid, either in the form of government-guaranteed grants or student loans.
In July, the White House released a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet. Earlier this year, SUNY officials adopted a uniform financial-aid award letter across the system's 64 campuses.
Jim McCabe, a guidance counselor at Harborfields High School, said the scorecard strikes a chord with parents looking for an unbiased and user-friendly way to assess and compare colleges. The use of government data, he said, "gives it more validity as a college guide."
"Colleges tend to paint a rosier picture and make it seem more affordable than it actually is," said McCabe, who formerly worked in a college admissions office. "They are businesses, and they want students.
At Harborfields, where about 98 percent of the seniors graduate and enroll in college, counselors are beginning to show students and families the site and have linked the district's college-search website to it.
On a recent afternoon, Colleen Rappa, 45, of Centerport, spent three hours in McCabe's office in the first of several likely meetings to discuss the college application process for her 16-year-old triplets.
Her three sons are juniors and are compiling their lists. A quick scan of the stats on the scorecard triggered questions that Rappa, a nonpracticing attorney, hadn't thought of.
"It concerns me to think that they'd be starting at a school, and after six years they might not even graduate from there," said Rappa about the graduation rates. "Through the application process, you almost forget that you are paying them [the colleges] to get an education. You should value and respect yourself enough to hold them to some standards."
Students at Long Island colleges generally had lower loan default rates than the national average, according to the scorecard. At the private, nonprofit colleges, the rates were between 5 percent and 7 percent. The national average was about 13 percent.
The College at Old Westbury had the highest loan default rate of the Long Island public colleges, at 18 percent. Private, for-profit schools such as Briarcliffe College and DeVry Institute had the highest loan default rates, at 21 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
Paul Forestell, provost of LIU Post in Brookville, where the grad rate was 42.5 percent, said he endorses the movement toward greater transparency but said like-minded universities should develop their own measures as well.
"Simply shooting for a one-size-fits-all and a national standard for what a college education should result in, just misses the mark," Forestell said.