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Top 10 Search Engine Sites to Build Your College List.


When teachers assign students a research project, how many of them ask students for ONLY one source of evidence? ZERO. When any of us decide to buy a car, how many of us go into a dealership and choose the best looking vehicle or the least expensive model without doing some research? ONLY THE CAVELIER FEW! So why is it that we “SHOP” for a college without doing extensive research? Because we, as parents, do not know that we are supposed to do so. We assume that the college research tools provided by the guidance counseling department are the most comprehensive available. OR, at least, that is what I thought when my daughter was in high school. But, guess what? That is not always true. Take Naviance, for example. It is the college search engine of choice for most school districts.  WHY? Because it is the only site where students can maintain one account from middle through high school.

In my last blog on College Fairs, I discussed the SECOND STEP IN THE COLLEGE PROCESS: identifying preferences such as location, size, cost, personality, and strong academic programs. I reminded students and their parents that finding the right college takes a little introspection and a whole lot of research.

In this post, my goal is to urge students and their parents to use the best research tools out there to build a college list. The COLLEGE ADMISSIONS PROCESS SHOULD NOT BE A LOTTERY. To this end, there are certain quantitative components that every student MUST research. And, you won’t necessarily find this data on Naviance.

Important Data to Know

  • % Graduation rates (college is more expensive if it takes six years to graduate.)
  • % Retention rates (college is EVEN more costly if you never graduate.)
  • % Acceptance rates (Gives a student a sense of his chances of getting in.)
  • Test/GPA Scores for the 75th% ( the average for last year’s freshmen class to gauge acceptance).
  • Average Net Cost vs. Sticker Price (this indicates potential merit aid generosity for institutions)
  • % of Early Decision Accepted/Applied versus % of Regular Decision Accepted/Applied (Reason: Because if you are applying RD — you better know what those percentages look like both for acceptance as well as for merit aid.)

ALSO: Every student’s list should include smaller/medium-sized schools (because these schools are often more generous with financial aid.) And, since the majority of colleges in the U.S. have under 10,000 students, you need to cast a wider net to build a strong college list.

Here is a link to three helpful spreadsheets on SOCIAL, ACADEMIC, AND FINANCIAL FIT that will help students to organize their research. Feel free to print them out and use them to compile critical data that every student needs to find his or her best-fit college.

One of the reasons I created these charts is because none of the free online search engines and comprehensive websites I have researched provide comparison information for more than 3 or 4 schools at one time. In my business, I have proprietary research tools that I use for extensive comparisons, but these tools are not accessible to students online.

Academic Fit Building a College List

Financial Fit College List Building

Social Fit Building a College List

SO, NOW THAT YOU KNOW WHAT TO RESEARCH, WHERE DO YOU BEGIN? The best way to start the process is via the internet using college search websites that provide the most efficient and reliable data. To that end, here are my recommendations for top sites and why.


1 College Navigator is part of the National Center for Education Statistics. It is responsible for collecting all kinds of education related data including the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is a federal website that lists all the colleges and schools in the nation and provides critical and comprehensive information on all schools.

College Navigator is a more user-friendly way to access the IPEDS data. Students can build a list of schools to compare side-by-side, export their search results into a spreadsheet for later viewing, and even save their search results for reference.

  • The College Navigator provides an extensive breadth of straightforward, accurate information on colleges
  • Tuition and Cost of Attendance
  • Accreditation information,
  • Financial aid statistics,
  • Graduation and transfer rates,
  • Tuition
  • Number of undergraduates
  • Athletic Offerings
  • Majors/Degree Offerings

The College Navigator also links to most schools’ net price calculators. (To use this – students will need documents including student and parental completed tax forms and W-2s). The site, however, does not provide information on merit pay.

Even though you are only allowed to compare four schools at a time, it does have an exported spreadsheet that not only contains the necessary information but exports additional important details as needed.

2 College Scorecard is a new tool introduced by President Obama in 2013. It gives students access to extensive federal data on the student-debt and attendance cost data for more than 7,000 U.S. higher-Ed institutions allowing students to compare schools based on on-time graduation rates, school size, and salary after attending college, among other factors. The College Scorecard is different from the College Navigator in that it’s focused on student outcomes after college to determine the value of a particular institution.

3 **Common Data Set captures information that isn’t available through (IPEDS) used for the College Navigator search website (or most websites) and may only show up on the Common Data Set survey and distributed by individual colleges.

  • Percentage of classes by size categories
  • Average GPA of the freshman class
  • GPA-breakdown of freshman by high school GPA
  • Percent of freshman by SAT/ACT score ranges
  • Percent of freshman by class rank
  • Percent of students who join a sorority or fraternity
  • Percentage of students who have their institutionally defined financial aid need to be met. (This has a huge bearing on college affordability. Some schools guarantee 100 percent of student need to be met, which means that if you get in, the university will make sure you’re financially able to attend.)
  • Information on aid to foreign students
  • Transfer credits: This is important for students who plan to start out at a two-year institution before moving on to a four-year university. You can search for transfer-friendly schools at the College Board, but to find out if a particular school accepts credits from another, you’ll likely have to visit both schools’ websites and follow up with admissions counselors.

**Usually searching for the college name and “common data set” will locate the information. The vast majority of colleges and universities make their common data set available.

4 COLLEGEdata is similar to the College Navigator in providing statistics and matching capabilities, but COLLEGEdata lists more of its criteria in a table for comparison purposes. It also includes information on Financial Aid and the Application Process as well as sections on Campus Life, Careers and Majors. This is one of the sites I would consider in doing extensive research. The site is up-to-date and efficient. This college search tool allows you to get data on:

  • Average student debt
  • % of students receiving merit awards
  • Freshman satisfaction rate.
  • Graduation rates for four, five and six years
  • % of parents borrowing PLUS loans
  • Student/Professor Ratio

There is also a College Chances Calculator. This tool compares Class Rank, GPA, Test Scores (ACT/SAT), Number of Honors Courses, Community Service Hours against the data pool of accepted applicants, giving prospective students an indication of his or her chances of being admitted.

5 Cappex is a college match site where you fill out a student profile so that you can be matched with schools that align with your preferences. You can search for schools and save to your list and compare them, search for scholarships, plan campus visits, read student reviews, and gauge your chances of getting into a particular school. It is a more visually attractive site (versus COLLEGEdata) and spells out tuition expenses, but the downside is that it has a lot of ads and popups. The scholarship search has a nice feature that tells you how much competition you will have if you apply for the scholarship. Cappex also links directly to the application for schools on your list of favorites so you can check out what materials you’ll need to apply. There is a newer feature called “Campus Vibe” which allows students who have visited a college to post photos and share videos. 

6 Big Future developed by The College Board has a left column of search filters including test scores, selectivity, location, housing, and majors. When you select one filter, such as the type of school, you will find a more advanced search tool that narrows down your selection by a variety of options that are widely searched. You are then asked how important each advanced filter is to you; your results depend on your answers, as a way of narrowing down the almost 4,000 colleges in its database. Unfortunately, you can only compare three schools at a time with limited criteria. The individual school profiles include information on the GPAs, class rank, graduation, and retention rates, but you can’t make a side-by-side comparison among colleges.

BOTTOM LINE:  Collegedata and Cappex sites are both better at providing more meaningful comparative data such as graduation rates, the financial need met, and merit aid. BUT, Big Future is colorful and easy-to-use and a solid introduction for a student and parent just being introduced to the college process. So it is a good place to start your research!

7 CollegeXpress is a user-friendly site with a lot of resources for students with particular interests as well as a college search and scholarship search engine. It provides lists and rankings, summer programs, and many college profiles. It also has a great blog to help with the entire application process.

College Confidential Aside from its college search feature, this site has an incredibly popular student forum. This resource is packed with questions by real students looking to get clarification on any number of college-related topics from their peers or from professionals. There are also many additional free resources including articles related to college admissions, paying for college, and other college-related topics. According to its website, College Confidential has a new search planning tool coming soon.

9 College Insight Funded by the Institute for College Access and Success, students can browse and compare information about affordability, diversity, and student success, and tailor customized comparisons that can be printed.

10 College Niche has a criteria-based college search feature and genuine current student reviews.  The at-a-glance college comparison screen is a letter-grade report card on the school generated by students.There is also scholarship information and a college chances calculator basing your grades and test scores against what the site has compiled for comparison data (supposedly from admitted students).




These books not only provide a factual overview but also share some more subjective responses to campus culture and personality types. Aside from the writers’ professional opinions, students also offer their candid views on what they love about their schools and what they would change if they could. These books do a nice job of rounding out the quantitative data putting a qualitative spin on the college and giving students an excellent introduction and overview to almost 400 schools.





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