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Understanding Your Financial Aid Offer part 1: Using College Scorecard to find your Academic Fit

For this episode, we spoke with Brian Fu, a Program Analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, about the Department of Education’s College Scorecard tool and how it can be used to search and compare higher education opportunities. This episode will also discuss the importance of finding the right “academic fit” when searching for a program.

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Next episode: Understanding your Financial Aid Offer part 2: What to know when filling out the FAFSA®

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Brian Fu
Program Analyst, Office of the Chief Data Officer, U.S. Department of Education


Brian Stone
Policy Analyst, Students and Young Consumers, CFPB

[Beginning of recorded session.]

Brian Stone: Welcome to the Financial InTuition Podcast where you can find your inner financial intuition one money topic at a time. The goal of the podcast is to educate, inform, and engage our audience with tools and resources created to help them make more informed financial decisions. These tools and resources can be found on our website at You can also click the link in the show notes for additional information. This is the first episode of a three-episode Understanding Your Financial Aid Offer series which focuses on using College Scorecard to find your academic fit, what to know in filling out the FAFSA, and using the CFPB's Grad Path tool to help with college decision-making.

Before we get started, I'll read our Consumer Financial Protection Bureau standard disclaimer. This podcast is being produced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It is intended to generate discussion about using College Scorecard to find your academic fit. The questions asked and topics discussed were developed in coordination with the presenter and may not represent the Bureau's policy on any particular matter. Any opinions or views stated by the presenters are the presenter's own and may not represent the Bureau's views. Nothing said in this podcast by a Bureau representative constitutes legal interpretation, guidance, or advice of the Bureau.

Hello, everyone. I'm Brian Stone, a policy analyst in the section for Students and Young Consumers. Our section creates tools and resources for those working to help students, young adults, and their families manage their money, build credit, save or pay for college, and repay student debt.

We're excited to gain insight from Brian Fu from the Department of Education about using College Scorecard to help find your academic fit. So, without further ado, let's jump right in. Welcome, Brian.

BRIAN FU: Thank you, Brian. Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

BRIAN STONE: Thanks for coming out. Can you tell our audience a little bit about you and your work at the Department of Education?

BRIAN FU: Sure. I've been at the U.S. Department of Education for, I guess, over 15 years now, and right now, my role is part of the Office of the Chief Data Officer. And the Office of the Chief Data Officer, we have a mission here, which is really about leveraging data as a strategic asset. What that means is, essentially, we're involved in all aspects of data, generating data, establishing data governance policies, developing infrastructure that manages data.

If you think about just the pipeline of creating and using data, we try to have our hands in all sorts of—all the different phases of that pipeline of developing, governing, making it available, and having it used properly. That's our mission, and College Scorecard is one of our projects, and it focuses on putting information out there for prospective students and their advocates to make informed decisions on where they go to school.

BRIAN STONE: Great, excellent. Can you talk a little bit more about College Scorecard, like what does it do, how can it be used, and what the value is like proposition for students?

BRIAN FU: Sure. College Scorecard is primarily a consumer information project. The purpose of it is to get data out there for prospective students, for their advocates, for example, their parents, their counselors, so that they have information and data to think about and consider when making this very important decision of where to go to school.

There are two main components to College Scorecard. The first is a data platform, and this data platform includes downloadable data files and what we call an "API," an application programming interface. And this has thousands, over 2,000 data elements for researchers or other developers. We encourage different developers out there to use—you know, create different websites or different apps so that they have this rich data resource at their fingertips to help prospective students make decisions and get the information to them that way.

We also have our own application, our own consumer website, which kind of highlights a few of the key data elements. Obviously, we don't put all 2,000 data elements out there in our application. We just highlight the things that we think are good for overall summary, and we publish that to And we encourage anybody who is looking to postsecondary education to go ahead and go to that site and start searching for things, schools that they may be interested in.

BRIAN STONE: Great. I know, and I took a quick peek, and we use College Scorecard a lot in the Section for Students. I know that students could potentially compare public institutions, private institutions, community colleges, grant programs, and understand things like the median debt, potential earnings once they graduate, retention of the college, and just be able to compare, like you said, a lot of different data elements and compare maybe up to 10 colleges so they can make an informed decision.

And I guess as a segue, could you talk a little bit about academic fit and how a prospective college student could use College Scorecard to help them find the right fit?

BRIAN FU: Sure. And I think "academic fit" is a good term to use here. I appreciate that notion, because everybody has different criteria for which they're evaluating which schools to go to. Different people might have a different purpose for going to school. We try to provide different data elements that would inform different types of values and goals in postsecondary education. Some of the data elements that you mentioned—for example, if someone is very career focused, we do have post-graduate earnings information, and we think that would be helpful for those types of students.

We do have information, for example, by field of study. If someone was particularly interested in whether it be science or health or languages, we provide which programs are available at which institutions. For those who are interested in something that's an affordable option, we provide information on costs. Whatever prospective student may be interested in or whatever they really value in their decisions, finding the right fit is about finding the right data element and getting it in front of the student so that they can make the decisions that they need to make.

BRIAN STONE: What are some important considerations that a student should think about when they're in the midst of making these decisions and thinking about their education?

BRIAN FU: Getting the cost of college, I'll say. I think cost is an important factor, and one thing that we like to highlight in College Scorecard, for example, is the average annual cost. I think there's a lot of considerations, and as I mentioned before, the considerations may be dependent on the particular goals of a student. But some things that I think are common to all students include cost, for example, because cost is an important factor, I think, in most decisions about which school to attend, and the College Scorecard website, we try to highlight average annual cost, which is the net price. This is the total price, which includes the tuition, the fees, the books, supplies, the average living cost, but then we subtract out the average grant and scholarship aid.

I think it's not a well-known fact that different students pay different prices for similar experiences based on, for example, their family income.

One important consideration, I think, is cost and understanding exactly what cost means in that particular situation, and the notion that just because they see and advertised cost, it doesn't mean that that's what they would end up necessarily paying. That's one important consideration, I think, that people should think about is what is the sticker price but also the realistic cost that they would be paying, given their background, their family income, and other factors that would make them eligible for grants and scholarships.

BRIAN STONE: I think that's a good point. We often, at least when we're out speaking with students—we tell them not to be, as you said, scared off by the sticker price but to cast a wide net and see what they're able to get back, because once you're able to get into some of the cost, break some things down, there might be some opportunities, as you said, based on family income or some scholarships, which could be needs-based, that could help lower the cost and make their particular college more affordable. That's a great point.

One thing you mentioned earlier when you talked about field of study—and I know for a lot of students, that's important. The idea of going to college is on the forefront of their mind, but knowing what I want to do when I grow up, so to say, is another conversation. How does College Scorecard help students when they're exploring different fields of studies?

BRIAN FU: As we mentioned, fields of study are important because it is actually what the student ends up studying and possibly taking a career in.

In College Scorecard on our consumer site, we have two ways to find information. One is to look for the school first. If you're looking or searching for school characteristics such as where the school is located, you could first type in school criteria that you're interested in and then figure out which fields of study are available in that school, or vice vera, if you're someone that's really interested in a particular field of study, you know what you want to major in, you know what you want to study, you can also type in whatever you're interested in, do it in the—whereas you can find the fields of study that are available and then find which institutions are the ones that actually offer those and compare and maybe figure out what location you want or other institutional characteristics.

The field of study, there's a couple important components to it. The first component is the level. There are three levels at the undergraduate that we show on our consumer site, the certificate level, and these often are shorter-term programs, but they can be longer than a year or two in length; associate's degree, which is typically takes 2 years for a full-time student to complete; and a bachelor's degree. That in combination with the subject matter creates a field of study.

One important thing to keep in mind for prospective students navigating our site is that our fields of study are general categories. For example, if you're interested in nursing, it would come up as such, but it may not give you the granularity of a course catalog that a school provides. For example, emergency nursing may not be something that you can look at, but generally speaking, if nursing is available, you'll be able to find that institution provides that category of programs.

BRIAN STONE: Great, excellent. You mentioned certificate programs. Do you have any tips for a student who may be considering getting a certificate versus going on a more traditional route?

BRIAN FU: Yeah. I think it's important to note that—you know, we talk about college, and we talk about College Scorecard. In this sense of—this definition of college, what we're really talking is about all of the postsecondary education options available, including career colleges and colleges that offer shorter-term career-focused projects.

In our program explorer, where you can look for fields of study, you can certainly filter out by the academic level, which fields of study you would be interested in. You'll see once you get on the search page that you can filter out, such that only certificate programs, which are programs typically shorter in length—and we have a robust search feature that allows you to just search on that if you're interested.

BRIAN STONE: Can College Scorecard be used by nontraditional students?

BRIAN FU: Absolutely. We think that this is a good tool for any type of student, and I think when we talk about nontraditional students, we often talk about those who don't enroll full-time immediately after high school. If you're someone who has been out of school for a while and are thinking about going back to college, there are—information on costs and other things are just as valid.

One of the things that's important, I think, is to—I think nontraditional students perhaps would like to know if they would be comfortable there, if there are other nontraditional students there, and there are different ways to kind of proxy for that. One thing that I would look for is—in our enrollment section on our consumer site, we show how many students are full-time versus part-time. To the extent that a nontraditional student wants to go back as a part-time student, they can see at what frequency the part-time students are enrolled and if they would meet other people that are in a similar situation to them.

BRIAN STONE: Great. If you could speak with a student before they started there, like higher education search, what type of advice would you give them?

BRIAN FU: That's a good question, and I think the biggest thing is to do a lot of research. I know College Scorecard provides one lens, but I would actually encourage a broader search that includes College Scorecard as well as other types of information they are able to get from other types of sources.

One of the things that I think is important and it's kind of the mission of our office at the Chief Data Officer is to always bring data to the decision-making table. Whether the decision is entirely based on data or just considered as part of a larger scheme of criteria, I would encourage students to at least consider data as part of their decision in deciding where to go to school.

BRIAN STONE: I think that's a good point because especially during the college search process or application process, the emotional side might take precedent. Just remember to include the numbers and understand how other students have fared in a particular institution. Especially in a field of study that a student might be interested in is an important consideration.

BRIAN FU: Right, right. And I think it's interesting. A lot of consumer products, people will go to a store and know what questions to ask. Especially like electronic products, they want to know memory. They want to know speed. They have all these data-driven questions to ask, and I feel like the culture isn't quite there for selecting schools. I think maybe if we can get people to start asking questions that are data-driven, I think that would be helpful as a system for the higher education system generally.

BRIAN STONE: Today we discussed a lot, and so the main takeaways to remember are, use College Scorecard to help you search and compare colleges, your field of study, cost, admissions, results, and more. Visit the Department of Education's website to find additional information on comparing colleges and programs of study. Choose a school that has a high ranking in a field that you're interested in.

Thank you for joining us today, Brian, and sharing your expertise with our audience. We also appreciate our listeners for tuning in. To stay connected, please visit our podcast page on, and so you don't miss out on future episodes, sign up to be notified of new releases. As always, remember to continue to develop your financial intuition and learn money management lessons today you can use to build a future you want tomorrow.

[End of recorded session.]