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Looking at Price and Results in College Search

There's more to deciding on a college than looking at the lists of "best colleges" as determined by U.S. News and World Report and others. Yet, applications are rising at a faster rate at the most selective colleges than other schools, new research from the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows.

With nearly 7,000 accredited postsecondary institutions and programs, there indeed is a school for everyone. But the obsession with name-brand colleges continues.

"U.S. News did not invent the value system that is represented in the list," said Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation at a panel last week. "It replicates the list in the minds of every college president of 'Who is the Best.'" While that perception is not likely to change at the top level, there are things students can do to leverage their power as consumers to find the best deal for them.

Rather than looking at inputs (who is getting admitted to schools), there is a growing push to review the outputs (graduation rates, job placement, etc.). And, there are a number of tools being introduced to help.

The Education Trust has College Results Online, an interactive website that includes retention, transfer, and graduation rates for colleges and how those rates have changed over time. It also provides colleges' track records in graduating diverse groups of students.

Too often, institutions have more information about the students applying than students have about the school. Experts suggest applicants ask about internships, career paths of graduates and what kind of succeeds at a school to get the best match.

"Undermatching" — when a student of high academic achievement doesn't take advantage of the best college opportunity — is a "serious problem," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education at the same forum last week. Sometimes the mere cost of applying can be a barrier for some students. ACE is supporting efforts to waive application fees for students in need, said Broad.

To help students explore a wide range of schools and find the right college at the right price, PossibilityU.com has introduced a new digital college counseling program. The small Portland, Maine-based company's big idea has generated attention from the White House at a technology and data conference last month.

With the PossibilityU program, students enter schools of interest and the recommendation engine suggests more based on academic and social characteristics. Students' personalized information (grades and test scores) further sorts and plots their chances of being accepted and getting financial aid from each school. The program works as an "app" on the existing data system, says chief executive officer Betsy Peters.

Beginning earlier this year, the program was rolled out in nine high schools, which pay about $10 a student, says Peters. The counselor, parent, and student, all have access to the account to track progress in the college search. (Families can purchase access for $250 a year.) Peters hope PossiblityU will be helping four million students by 2020.

Students can also get a better picture of the bottom-line costs of college now with net-price calculators on college websites, which were required beginning last year.

Aside from its prestige list, U.S. News does consider cost and grants in its Best Value ranking and student success in its list of Highest 4-Year Graduation Rates.

There's little chance the quest for a bumper stick from a "top school" will stop any time soon, but the enormous investment in tuition is prompting many price-sensitive families to dig a little deeper.


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