LEWISTON — When Lewiston High School senior Justin Skillings was looking at colleges, he had to scour his favorite school's website for 30 minutes to find out how many students graduated on time.
Starting this week, he can find it in two minutes using a federal website.
Advocates say the new site gives quick, easy-to-find information that is badly needed for students choosing colleges. But critics say the site offers numbers but no context.
"I totally support transparency and so on, but there are a lot of nuances that your general consumer is not going to understand," said Greg LaPointe, executive director of institutional research and planning at the University of Maine at Augusta.
On Wednesday, the morning after President Barack Obama told Americans in his State of the Union address that they will soon be able to compare colleges based on "where you can get the most bang for your educational buck," the U.S. Department of Education unveiled College Scorecard, an interactive site that gives users basic information about each school's cost, graduation rate, loan default rate and student indebtedness.
Despite its name, the College Scorecard does not rank, rate or score schools. Instead, it tells how each school compares to the national average and leaves it up to users to weigh the data.
"We wouldn't (provide a score)," said U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Jane Glickman. "We're just looking at the cost, graduation, things that are really important in a snapshot."
Joan Macri, associate director of College for ME-Androscoggin, lauded much of the site's information, including net price, which tells students how much it will typically cost to attend that school after grants and scholarships are factored.
She called College Scorecard "hugely helpful."
"Parents and students need to know going into applying to a school what the cost is, and sometimes it's very difficult to find out," she said, noting that grants can make an expensive private school cost the same — or less — than a public school.
"One of the hardest things to convince kids and their families is to look at all different kinds of schools and compare (financial aid) packages when they get them," Macri said.
College Scorecard shows private Colby College in Waterville, for example, costs an average $19,700 a year to attend while the public University of Southern Maine costs about $18,200, a difference of $1,500 even though their tuition prices are separated by tens of thousands of dollars.
Macri also liked that the site shows how much federal debt students typically accrue. "The amount of indebtedness, that's the piece that people are terrified of," she said.
At Lewiston High School, a trio of seniors agreed the site's information would help them. Gabrielle Galarza, who is considering USM and Saint Joseph's College of Maine in Standish, liked having data organized and accessible in one spot. She was surprised to find Saint Joseph's graduation rate was less than 55 percent.
"I thought it'd be higher because they're one of the better-known schools," she said.
Skillings, who'd scoured the University of Northwestern Ohio's website for graduation information, liked that graduation rates were quick and easy to find. So did his friend, Nickolas Cyr, who is considering Central Maine Community College in Auburn because it's close to home and affordable.
But Cyr was taken aback by the community college's graduation rate — less than 24 percent.
"That is bad," he said.
It's the kind of reaction colleges fear. While Maine college officials generally like what the College Scorecard is trying to do, some say it doesn't explain what the numbers mean or why they might be low or high.
"It's not representing who we are," said LaPointe at UMA, which has a 16-percent graduation rate (low) and an 18-percent loan-default rate (high).
LaPointe said College Scorecard doesn't explain that UMA admits all students, many of them older, working adults who take longer to graduate. And, he said, those working adults are more likely to rely on loans and are less likely than traditional graduates to leave the area for work after graduation because they have family here — which means paying back those loans can be difficult.
He would like to see the site provide information about how much students learn, a statistic that can be gained by looking at grades.
Roger Philippon, dean of planning and public affairs at CMCC, wasn't pleased with some of his college's numbers, either. CMCC's low graduation rate reflects that the school is often a stepping stone to other colleges, he said.
"A lot of our students come to us with no intention of graduating from CM," he said. "They're going to be with us for a year or two before they transfer to another college or they're filling in between studies at another college."
But unlike LaPointe, Philippon wasn't worried that College Scorecard would scare away potential students. He believes they'll ask the school more questions.
That's Cyr's plan.
"It's definitely something I'm going to have to look into," he said.