Comparison of Top 11 College Search Engines

Good Better Best Steet SignsSometime ago I did a series of posts comparing college search websites. I tried to complete a search for colleges with specific characteristics and evaluated how easy it was to do in eight different websites. I think it’s time to once again compare college search websites but use a different approach. This time I’m going to organize the posts by search feature rather than website.

Why? Because I think a lot of users aren’t exactly clear on what their searching on, the significance it may or may not have on college costs, and the limitations of the data being used. I know, sounds like a fun time, right?

Probably just about as fun as the idea of graduating with so much student debt that you have to delay buying a house. Peaked your attention a little?

Part 1: Comparison of Top 11 College Search Engines
Part 2: Will Attending a Community College Save You Money?
Part 3: Should You Attend an Out-of-State Public University
Part 4: How Far Away Should You Go To College?
Part 5: Does College Size Matter?
Part 6: Colleges in Large Cities
Part 7: College Acceptance Rates
Part 8: Searching for Colleges by Majors
Part 9: The Results

The fact is that if you want to cut your college costs you have to start with the college search itself. That means you need to understand how the various college characteristics can affect how much you pay for college.

Before I begin comparing college search websites, I want to give some basic information about the websites I’ll be using such as who sponsors them, if registration is required, and any relevant data information. This way you’ll know the limits of the data they provide as well as who might be using any data you provide the website.

Where the College Data Comes From

All the college search websites are based on one of two data sets, IPEDS or CDS. IPEDS stands for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and is part of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). All post-secondary institutions that receive federal funding for student aid must report the data through a variety of surveys administered by the NCES.

The Common Data Set (CDS) is a non-government initiative by data publishers to collect data from colleges to use in rankings. Creating the CDS ensures that the publishers will have the data available on a timetable convenient for them. The College Board and US News College Rankings are the two major sponsors of the CDS. Many websites license the CDS data for use in their search engines.

The Differences and Why it Matters

The reason why you need to know about the two data sources is because it will make a difference in your ability to search for need-base or merit-aid.?  IPEDS doesn’t separate need-based institutional grants from merit grants while the CDS does. However, IPEDS does provide average net cost after gift aid by income categories while the CDS does not.

While the CDS merit and need based data is very useful, it is self-reported and there is no way to actually verify it. In cases where IPEDS and CDS both request the same data, schools have been caught submitting different data for each even when the definitions are the same. Therefore, when you see some numbers that seem too good to be true, there is a possibility that it is.

Should you consider one data set superior or more reliable than another? Both have issues. With CDS data, there is an incentive to submit data that will improve rankings or general appeal. The IPEDS data is known to have published information that was obviously a data entry error on the part of the school. However, since the school didn’t catch the error during the verification process, the data was published.

Comparing College Search Websites

The following is a list of websites that I’ll be comparing for search features. Many of these websites offer additional information besides just IPEDS or CDS data. This include student reviews, rankings, test prep, counseling, and other resources. Therefore, a website that is poor for searching for colleges may be very useful in finding out other information about colleges.

There are three websites that I’m not including that I had reviewed previously. CollegeData, a website which any data geek will love, apparently hasn’t updated its data since 2011. This is too bad since I think it does the best job in terms of transparency and ability to search. It’s still worth looking at for similar colleges.

As I mentioned in the first review, The Princeton Review and US News College Rankings aren’t actually search engines. They provide information about colleges but don’t really allow users to search them. I would add CollegeMeasures.org to the same category. All can provide useful information when looking up individual schools.

BigFuture is sponsored by the College Board, the people that bring you the SAT and AP exams. Users do not have to register to use the college search feature. However, if you want to save your search, you do have to register with more than just a user name and email.?  BigFuture is one of the major publishers of the Common Data Set.

Cappex requires registration, just an email and password, to even start a search. Users can expect to view offers by various college related businesses each time they log in. The website data is based on the IPEDS data set.

The CollegeData website is owned by 1st Financial Bank and uses CDS data. Users do not have to register to use the search function but must if they want to save information in the data locker.

CollegeNavigator is the college search website for the National Center for Education Statistics, the agency responsible for IPEDS. Not surprisingly it uses IPEDS data. No registration is required.

CollegeProwler (Niche) No registration for search but must register to save information by providing contact and academic information.?  The website uses the IPEDS data set and offers additional services and partners with other companies.

College Reality Check is part of The Chronicle of Higher Education and uses IPEDS data. Registration is not required for use.

College View uses the SuperMatch search system which is based on the CDS data. CollegeView is part of Hobsons which is also responsible for College Confidential and Naviance. You don’t need to register to search for colleges but will in order to save your information.

College Xpress is part of Carnegie Communications, a higher education and marketing company. You don’t have to register to use the search feature but you do to save your results. Uses CDS information.

My College Options allows users to search without registering. The data is IPEDS based. You have to register to save your information. The website partners advertise but users are not subjected to regular offers every time they use the service.

Peterson’s data is based on IPEDS supplemented with other data on campus life. You do not have to register to search for colleges. The website provides other college related products for payment such as test prep and essay help. It is owned by Nelnet, a student loan repayment company.

Unigo is a college search website that provides additional services for payment such as live counseling. The data is based on IPEDS and registration is not required to use the search feature.

Next week I’ll start looking at the actual search features and what they mean as far as how much you’ll pay for college.

Part 1: Comparison of Top 11 College Search Engines
Part 2: Will Attending a Community College Save You Money?
Part 3: Should You Attend an Out-of-State Public University
Part 4: How Far Away Should You Go To College?
Part 5: Does College Size Matter?
  1. Steve Palley says:

    hi Michelle, thanks for the great post! I run a new college search site called ApplyMap, and we make use of both IPEDs and CDS school data, as well as a lot of supplementary stuff from the U.S. Census and other sources. I really like your idea to disclose which government or corporate entity, if any, stands behind a particular site (we are an independent startup).

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