I've always been a fan of online comparison shopping sites when scouting out everything from a vacuum cleaner to a car.That's why I like the U.S. Department of Education's new College Scorecard, which provides financial information such as cost, the loan default rate, and average student debt from institutions all on a single website.The interactive tool launched last month, after being in the planning stages for about a year. And while the site has limitations, it's off to a good start at tying together a lot of information and loose ends that previously had made it difficult for many families to select good, affordable colleges.You can also quickly see how your prospective college students' top-of-the-list picks stack up with one another.You can never get enough information before making the final college decision and writing the first fat tuition check.The College Scorecard is the latest in a series of developments by the Obama administration to increase transparency and simplify information about college costs.For example, the scorecard can be used with the Department of Education's Net Price Calculator. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has beefed up online tools and resources to demystify the college financial-aid process, and the bureau is now developing policy options on how to make student-loan repayment programs less onerous.My advice with the College Scorecard is to use it as a starting point in gathering information about a specific school. The data is collected by the education department and covers four areas: costs, graduation rate, loan default rate and median borrowing by an undergraduate student.The loan default rate is particularly useful because it shows the ability of graduates to repay what they borrowed to earn their degree.But the scorecard is a work in progress. Still under construction is a section on employment, which should eventually be able to tell you how many graduates get jobs from a particular school, what types of jobs, and starting salary. For now, students are urged to ask the schools for that information.The site has other shortcomings -- namely, that not every school is in the database. That knocked down my overall grade for the scorecard.In addition, much of the information is not current. You can probably get better data by going directly to a school's website or by checking various college resource publications.Keep those imperfections in mind when exploring the site.But unlike shopping comparison sites that give you the lowdown on a car or other depreciating assets, at least the College Scorecard is all about assets that will likely appreciate over time. I'm talking about your son or daughter and the value they could derive from a good education.
The College Scorecard can be found at www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/higher-education/college-score-card.