College Search Websites: Introduction

Man looking at web pagesIf you were to visit the major college search websites, you would conclude that people have just a few considerations when choosing a college. Based on the search options common to eight of the most popular websites, students want to be able to pick a college based on its location, the location’s setting, size, tuition, selectivity, test scores, majors, whether it’s a community college or four-year institution,  and if it’s public or private.

The first question is whether or not these are the characteristics you should be using to pick a college. Given that between financial aid and merit money few students pay full tuition, the tuition variable is pretty useless. A more specific average net cost or average financial aid award would be useful but isn’t found as a search option on most websites.

Public or private status is only moderately more useful than tuition since private colleges are likely to provide much more aid that public schools. While there are instances where student have financial reasons to attend only public or private schools, it’s more likely to be used inappropriately as a cost filter.

College Search Websites

Test scores fall into the necessary evil type information. Most public institutions use a combination of test scores and class rank for admission policies. Test scores are often used for calculating merit aid. Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear how a website is using the test score information in its search. Colleges are reporting 25th and 75th percentile scores so when you enter your score, which is it comparing it to? How close do the school’s scores have to be to yours to be considered a match?  What would be more useful, especially for those students looking for merit aid, is to know the 75th% scores and GPA.

Selectivity is another tricky category. Most people would take it to mean the percentage of students admitted to an institution. And that was true for all the websites I look at except for one. But how useful is that for a student in selecting a college? The student knows they aren’t likely to get into the likes of Harvard but is also not interested in an open admissions school-so maybe somewhere in the middle?

Based on 2010 data from Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), there are 352 colleges that have admission rates between 40% and 60%. The average SAT scores can range to just under 1400 to below under 800. This group includes Reed College, Grinnell, Georgia Tech as well as SUNY College at Buffalo, Stephan F Austin State University, and Saint Thomas University. This a pretty diverse group.

What this shows is that acceptance rates have a lot to do with self-selection.  Alabama State University has a 44% acceptance rate while Villanova University has a 45% rate. However, it’s quite likely that those rejected by Villanova would be accepted at Alabama State while most of those accepted at Alabama State would have a hard time getting into Villanova.

Location setting would seem to be a useful variable. After all, students want to go to colleges where there lots of opportunities for entertainment and cultural activities outside of campus. At least they think they do but that’s another issue entirely. The problem is how schools are classified into settings. The University of North Texas in Denton and MIT are in the category “City: Midsize” but I don’t think most people would consider Cambridge and Denton offering similar experiences.

That leaves college size, location, major, and whether it’s a four-year or two-year institution to choose from. Obviously, students need to be able to distinguish between a community college and a four-year institution. And it’s pretty hard for a search site to mess up selecting states to include in the search although one does.

Major and location would seem to be pretty straight forward as well but they aren’t. In the case of majors, it isn’t always clear if the site is using a specific major or a more broad category. There’s also the issue of selecting multiple majors, does the school have to offer all of them or just one of them? And of course, there is the importance rating thing–what does it mean if having a major is only somewhat important as opposed to must have?

School size should be simple, enter the range of students and click enter. Unfortunately, the majority of sites don’t allow you to enter the numbers, you have to pick among a predefined category. So you may want to choose schools between 5000 and 10000 but can only select schools between 7000 and 15000.

This post was supposed to be a simple a review of eight college search websites. However, once I got started I found that there really wasn’t much simple about it for many of the reasons I give above. So I decided to give this background and then I’ll review the individual websites in future posts. For each website, I’ll also do a simple search and compare the results. Spoiler alert, the results can vary dramatically between websites.