If you’re a high school student, or a parent of a college-bound student, applying to college is top of mind. The college application process is research-intensive, and just figuring out where you should apply can be exhausting: You can measure a school by academic quality, study abroad opportunities, campus culture and extracurriculars, geographic region/proximity to home, hiring rates and starting salaries after graduation...we could keep going, but you get the gist.
Simply put, there’s a lot of college data to dive into and interpret, so a good rule of thumb: Approach all your college research through the filter of your own educational goals and values, and let those drive your personal rankings (aka top-choice colleges). As you’re compiling the data, hone in on what’s important to you (e.g., low student loan debt after graduation), and see how your potential colleges measure up on those specific unique criteria. From there, you can narrow your selections down and determine which schools make your top-choice colleges list. By doing research early and extensively, you’ll get a good sense of which colleges are the right fit for you and your goals.
There’s lasting value in making a well-informed college decision, too: According to a recent Gallup & Strada Education Network poll, 51 percent of respondents indicated they regretted their higher education decision, with 28 percent saying they’d choose a different college from the one they attended. So researching colleges may be stressful and even tiresome, but it’s worth the time and effort. Knowledge is (college application) power!
So where should you start your initial college research? A good first stop is the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard comparison tool. Launched in 2015 under President Obama, the College Scorecard is an online clearinghouse of data that enables high school students, parents, and college counselors to parse statistics across multiple colleges and universities at once. Aggregating data from thousands of universities and colleges, the College Scorecard covers categories including tuition, net price, student loan debt, graduation rates, and starting salaries, among other parameters. You can compare up to 10 schools simultaneously to get a side-by-side view of the colleges you’re considering.
Edmit brings together College Scorecard data and data from other sources for personalized reports.
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Remember, though, that the College Scorecard is a first step among many, and shouldn’t be the end of your college research process. “As informative as the Scorecard may be, it still falls short of offering the sort of practical, program-level information that aspiring college students need to compare the institutions and fields of study in which they are considering investing,” says Carol D’Amico, executive vice president of Mission Advancement and Philanthropy at Strada Education Network, on Real Clear Education. “As in every other aspect of their consumer lives, aspiring undergraduates are hungry for both quantitative data, like graduation rates and employment outcomes, and qualitative data, like consumer satisfaction levels.”
Since the College Scorecard focuses heavily on quantitative data, you as a student consumer can use it to inform the quantitative elements most important to you, knowing that you’ll also have to conduct primary research on those personalized qualitative elements that you value.
For example, let’s say there are 15 colleges you’re considering applying to, and you’re most interested in colleges that have a high graduation rate and low student loan debt. You plug up to 10 at a time into the College Scorecard, drilling down on data for graduation rates, total typical debt after graduation, typical monthly loan payments, and salary after attending. You may find that there are clear differentiations—or you may find negligible differences. In that case, it’s time for qualitative research—while still keeping emotions to a minimum.
Armed with your initial quantitative college research results, prepare a list of questions on the aspects of campus life that you value the most. Then, reach out to college admissions counselors for in-person conversations. Ask to be connected to current students and alumni to get their experiences. Based on those initial conversations and how they align with your personal criteria, narrow your list further—perhaps from 10 colleges down to five or seven. From that list, schedule your campus tours, ideally with the chance to sit in on a class or two, have a meal at a dining hall, or spend an overnight in the dorms.
After you’ve conducted your qualitative and quantitative research, you should have a sense of which colleges are your top choices. The next steps? Prepare and submit your college applications, your FAFSA and CSS/PROFILE financial aid forms, and await your results. Then, when your acceptance and financial aid letters come in, use Edmit to evaluate those offers and ensure you’re getting the best value.
Like we said, being an informed college consumer is a lengthy process. But by doing your due diligence with data sources and your own values-based research, you’ll discover which colleges are the right fit for you.