Online Tools Help with Your College Search

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Choosing a college ranks up there with choosing your life partner – it’s one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make, and it will shape your future.

Complicating this fact of life is the high cost of education. Most students graduate with thousands of dollars in debt. Naturally, they deserve to know what kind of return they’re getting on their investment.

First-generation college seekers, with no family history of higher education, lack the expertise to point them in the right direction. Clearly they need a guide to making good consumer decisions about their education. It’s no wonder that more adult learners are demanding consumer information about colleges and universities.

After all, we have Consumer Reports to help us pick out electronics and cars. Angie’s List provides reviews of household services. And Zillow lets us research real estate before we buy. What if there was a similar clearinghouse for a college search?

Fortunately, there have been a few attempts to deliver just such a tool. Below is a brief survey of college search tools, all of which include online schools, like Ashford University.

US News College Rankings

For many years, the go-to resource for comparing colleges and universities has been the annual college rankings published by US News and World Report.

However, you should approach the US News rankings with a healthy dose of skepticism. Early in 2013, the Washington Post revealed that five well-known universities had provided US News with false information about their students’ test scores. Also, US News leaves out many accredited institutions, so their college rankings give an incomplete picture of the true education landscape.

College Reality Check

More recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education came out with College Reality Check, an online resource. It’s not quite the most user-friendly interface, with the option to “Find Colleges” buried amidst pages and pages of content. The college search tool itself lets you enter a few basic criteria like college size, selectivity, and location.

I’m a little troubled by the Annual Net Price criterion. It begins at –$20,746. How is it possible for a college to charge negative tuition? The dollar amounts ascend from there with no apparent rhyme or reason. But if you’re not very well-versed in the world of higher education, you might not know a reasonable number to select. We can imagine many students setting the scale at the lowest number and searching only for the cheapest options.

College Reality Check could help prospective students find good bargains, and maybe reassure them that they’re more likely to graduate on time. But beyond net price and graduation rates, this resource doesn’t offer much information or guidance that students can use.

College Board

Instead of US News or College Reality Check, you would be better of visiting the College Board website to conduct a broad search. Here you can filter your college search by up to 10 different criteria. You can even assign your filters different weights to privilege those criteria that are most important to you.

Of course, the College Board’s website only gives a very superficial overview of each school. In order to make an informed choice, you’ll need to drill down for more details. Once you’ve got a short list of schools, move from College Board over to the more detailed College Scorecard.

College Scorecard

The College Scorecard website offers an easy interface where you can look up a specific university by name. Once you’ve found a few schools that fit your lifestyle and goals, then go through each school on your list and pull up that school’s scorecard for very specific information. The scorecard answers these questions:

  • What does it typically cost to attend this university?
  • What percentage of students graduate?
  • What percentage of students are able to repay their loans after graduation?
  • And how much do students typically borrow?

In the future, the Education Department will add information about how many graduates get jobs, what kinds of jobs they get, and how much they earn.

Of course, before you can look up a college’s scorecard, you first need to have heard of that school. That’s why it’s best to start with the College Board, make a short list of schools that fit, and then look up each one on the College Scorecard.

Combining these two resources, the College Board together with the College Scorecard will give consumers the useful information they need to make an informed decision.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael Mussman is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.

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