What are the best college search tools out there? Which colleges have the highest student satisfaction? Find out how to research colleges to determine your best fit.
Which college is right for me? It’s a tough decision for sure: There are nearly 5,000 colleges to choose from, and so many factors to consider—from academics to campus culture, financial aid to alumni networks—at any given college or university. So it’s important to use as many research tools at your disposal early in the college application process, so you can narrow your “where to apply” to-do list to just the colleges and universities you think will be a good fit.
There are a lot of college search tools out there, and you may be stuck over where to start your own research: What are the best college search tools? How should you interpret their findings and rankings? How many of these college search sites should you consult to get a good picture of a given college or university?
At Edmit, we know it can get overwhelming, so we’ve done a lot of the initial legwork. Here are five college search tools to consider in your college search:
High school students and parents can use these research-intensive college reporting sites to compare the factors they consider most important (e.g., college price, academic excellence, on-time graduation rates, job placement rates, etc.).
When starting your preliminary college fit research, set up a spreadsheet or chart with the following guidelines:
By answering these questions, you’ll get a preliminary sense of which colleges will be a good fit. Once you’ve identified your top fit schools, you can then schedule in-person visits for a campus tour and interviews with college admissions counselors, and select the schools you want to apply to (and your top-choice colleges among that list).
Phew! It’s a lot of research, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor (not to mention good practice for your term papers, once you’ve arrived at college). Before you get going, here’s a quick overview of our five college search tools to add to your college search toolkit.
College Scorecard, run by the U.S. Department of Education, offers a one-stop shop for students and parents to look up college information, covering parameters including test scores of admitted students, socio-economic diversity on campus, college net price (e.g., cost of attending by family income), typical student loan debt, and student salaries after graduation, among a host of other criteria. You can compare up to 10 colleges at a time, and export the report to share with others.
While the comparisons are robust, you may still have to do a bit of manual tracking: For example, the College Scorecard tool doesn’t currently enable you to break out its criteria by major (e.g., graduation rates and starting salaries for business majors), nor does it track any criteria for student satisfaction data (although one may extrapolate retention rate in this area). Additionally, the College Scorecard tool only shows the averages of what students pay by school within specific ranges of family income. So if your income varies from year to year, if you’re hoping for merit-based aid, or if you would like to negotiate your financial aid package, there are no differentiators here to help facilitate a more customized financial aid comparison.
Be aware of these blind spots as you do your own research—and get into more specifics with direct conversations with your potential college’s admissions, specific academic deans, and financial aid counselors.
U.S. News and World Report released its first data-driven college reports in 1988 (after five years of opinion survey-based rankings). Today, it’s the grandfather of the college data industry, with students and parents able to parse listings from more than 1,800 colleges and universities—and many ways to slice and dice the data (e.g., college major, best value, region, etc.) General rankings are free to browse, or you can pay $39.95 to access U.S. News’ College Compass - My Fit Engine, which enables students to compare schools based on no fewer than 23 criteria, either at individual schools or in tandem across multiple universities and colleges.
Before signing up for the subscription, speak with your high school guidance counselor or college coach (if applicable). Do they recommend using the My Fit Engine, based on their expertise, or are there other (ideally free) resources you can use? If they recommend the My Fit tool, do they already have access, and could you use it for your research? If you’re not working with a guidance counselor or college coach, can you find the same data via free sources (such as College Scorecard or each respective college’s website)?
Additionally, when reviewing college rankings from U.S. News, note that all colleges and universities are being graded on the same standards—which may not align with your own preferred criteria and personal goals. “The problem isn’t the U.S. News model but its scale,” says Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. “It forces everyone to shoot for exactly the same goals, which creates a rat race—and lots of unintended consequences”, including potential market manipulation and self-reinforcing results.
Keep this in mind if you include U.S. News college rankings, either general or specific, in your own college research.
The Wall Street Journal/Times higher education rankings, encompassing more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities, focus on student engagement and outcomes compiled from survey data submitted from more than 200,000 students. Surveys ask students about satisfaction with their college experience based on their studies, interactions with instructors, and the reasons behind their college choice. The survey also asks about areas for improvement at their given college or university. Four criteria, or “pillars”, are weighted in each ranking: Resources, Engagement, Outcomes, and Environment.
Additionally, the Wall Street Journal/Times reports study worldwide higher education rankings with slightly different criteria (e.g., more research-focused), but individual U.S. college results can still be sorted by international ranking. This may be useful data for students interested in studying abroad, or working abroad after graduation, and want to know how their potential school would be regarded in those contexts.
With just three years of reporting as of late 2017, the Wall Street Journal/Times college rankings are new on the scene. Their individual college summaries and results pages go a bit more in-depth than their competitors, but the actual college rankings as a whole don’t diverge wildly from those you’ll see on other college data sites (like U.S. News). Still, note the student survey and international comparisons here as potentially valuable differentiators when doing your own college research.
If you value how your college degree will impact your hireability and starting salary after graduation, consider Payscale’s annual College Salary Report. The most recent report surveyed more than 2 million graduates, representing more than 2,700 colleges and universities, in the areas of highest degree earned, major, pay, and earning potential through mid- and late career. Both two-year colleges and four-year colleges are represented in Payscale’s rankings.
Payscale’s college report may be of particular interest if you’re undecided on a major and want to maximize your earning power over the duration of your career, or if you want to minimize the time it will take to pay off student loan debt. Using Payscale’s college report can be a good way to narrow your focus and hone in on the colleges that best address those high-earning fields and regions.
Payscale is a bit more transparent in its ranking methodology compared to other college ranking sites, but note a few areas for consideration: The smaller the school, the likelier smaller sample size. (Payscale requires at minimum 30 survey respondents for a college to be included in rankings.) Some data may be subjective, and not aligned with your values. For example, in its High Job Ranking criteria, Payscale asks survey respondents “Does your work make the world a better place?” without differentiating by sector or role. Be aware that some of the qualitative data here may not align with your expectations or interpretations, so it’s a good practice to cross reference Payscale’s outcomes with direct sources at the colleges that interest you.
Here at Edmit, we aggregate data from sources like those above, in additional with the personalized data you provide on your profile and financial aid award letter, to help you get actionable insights on your college investment. Our goal is to make all aspects of college pricing and value more transparent—for everyone.
Of course, we’re still in beta, and are always looking for ways to improve. So build your profile, upload your financial aid award letters (if you have them), and get started. We’ll compare your offers, make price recommendations, and connect you with financial aid experts who are ready to work with you.
But back to the original question: How do I know if a college is right for me? With initial research on both quantitative and qualitative data, a willingness to negotiate, and a consumer-driven approach, you’ll be well on your way to making an informed decision on where to go to college.
Founded by recognized university leaders, Edmit provides personalized insights and advice to help families find colleges that meet their academic goals and are within their financial means. Families that use Edmit make smarter college choices leading to less debt and better earnings outcomes, saving thousands of dollars.