Looking to Compare Colleges? Try This Online Tool | Best colleges

With thousands of colleges and universities to choose from – varying in cost, size, location, majors and extracurricular activities – narrowing down a list of top choices can be daunting.

But there is a tool that allows students and families to compare and contrast specific features at two-year and four-year schools across the country: the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard.

“I don’t think that very many people know about the College Scorecard or use it very often,” says Keely Haynes, director of financial aid at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. “It does provide some good data so you can get started in thinking about what you might be looking for and what school is going to meet your needs.”

Experts say the tool is a “good starting point” in the search process, but advise students to also do outside research on schools.

What Is the College Scorecard?

The College Scorecard is an online tool introduced in 2013 under President Barack Obama’s administration to increase transparency in higher education. Prospective students and their families can use it to learn more about individual colleges, like their graduation and retention rate, annual cost, average SAT and ACT admissions test scores – if required – and student body demographics.

Graduation rates are based on the number of students who graduated within eight years of entering the school for the first time. The retention rate is the percentage of students who returned after their first year. Students can narrow the search to see graduation and retention rates for Pell Grant recipients.

The average net price is the school’s total cost of attendance – tuition, housing, meal plan, books and fees – minus the average grants and scholarships received. There is also a breakdown of the average costs based on family income.

Additionally, demographic data looks at students’ race, ethnicity, full-time or part-time status and Pell Grant eligibility.

Each school’s profile also includes the location, undergraduate enrollment size, degree offerings and available academic programs. The tool also has a search function based on fields of study, so users can see the best colleges for a specific major.

“It’s a step toward getting a sense of the quality of the institution,” says Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “You can hear from other people who’ve gone to a school, you can learn about where typical graduates might go on to work and rely on its reputation through word of mouth, but this is data.”

Recent Changes

The College Scorecard is updated multiple times each year, but some of the biggest changes occurred in February 2022.

Institution-level earnings data, which had been included in the tool before 2018, was re-added. It provides users with median earnings of each college’s alumni.

The tool also shows the percentage of alumni earning more than those with only a high school diploma.

Additionally, there is now an annual refresh of the federal student loan repayment rates as well as data on cumulative loan debt for student borrowers by institution.

“Of the students who graduated from the school, you can see what percentage of borrowers have already paid their loans in full, who are in on-time payment status, who’s delinquent and who’s gone into default,” Desjean says. “You can get a sense of whether people who graduated from this school are generally able to repay the debt that they’ve had to take on to attend.”

How to use the tool

The tool is free for anyone to use, with no account needed.

Users can search for specific schools or explore options based on location, degree type, academic fields, cost or selectivity. There is also a compare function, so prospective students can look at up to 10 schools or fields of study side by side.

To give perspective, users can see how the data matches up to other schools of the same type and nationally.

But there are limitations to the data, experts warn.

For example, for public colleges, the College Scorecard only lists the average annual net price for in-state students, not out-of-state students. Additionally, every student’s financial aid needs are different, so the amount of grants or scholarships received varies.

“Individual experiences won’t necessarily match what you see there on the scorecard,” Desjean says. “You really can’t make predictions about your future from that, it’s much more valuable than a comparison tool.”

Experts suggest looking at a college’s website to see what scholarships and need-based grants are offered as well as reaching out to financial aid offices for any questions.

“I think financial aid should be as much of a factor included in your decision as whether you like an urban campus or a rural campus, or a big school or a small school,” says Julie Gross, owner of College Financial Consultants, a college consulting company in New Jersey. “I think too many students are coming out with overwhelming debt. When a student graduates college with over a $100,000 in debt, I don’t think they realize what impact that’s going to have on their lives.”

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