6 Ways the College Scorecard Can Help You Pick the Right School

 September 13, 2019
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With nearly 4,300 colleges to choose from, putting together your list of schools can be an overwhelming process. Fortunately, college finder tools help you narrow down your options. And one of the best college comparison sites, in our opinion, comes directly from the Department of Education: the College Scorecard.

Introduced in 2013 under the Obama administration, the College Scorecard is an interactive tool that lets you compare data on colleges. Not only can you see essential stats on test scores and retention rates, but you’ll also gain insight into financial aid, starting salaries for graduates and the average debt upon graduation.

Read on to learn exactly how the College Scorecard data analysis of thousands of colleges can help you choose an affordable school. Specifically, we’ll look at how to use this tool to:

1. Search for colleges by program, location, size and other factors
2. Compare average costs of attendance by family income level
3. See how much debt students have upon graduation
4. Get a sense of average salaries after college
5. Check out graduation and retention rates
6. Learn more about test scores, programs and student body demographics

1. Search for colleges by program, location, size and other factors

When you first head to the College Scorecard website, the tool may seem deceptively simple. You’ll see a few drop-down menus that let you filter your college search by such factors as…

  • Type of school and degree
  • College program
  • Location
  • Size of school
  • Specialized mission or religious affiliation

Of course, if you already have some specific schools in mind, you can enter them by name into the search field.

With thousands of four-year colleges, community colleges and vocational schools to choose from, these simple filters can help you narrow down your list dramatically. If you know you want to attend a medium-sized school located within a 30-mile radius of home, for instance, you can create a list with just those institutions that meet your criteria.

And if you’re not sure what you’re looking for in terms of program, size or location, you can move on to the next step to compare schools on other metrics.

2. Compare average costs of attendance by family income level

One of the best features of the College Scorecard is its data analysis of college costs. With this tool, you can see the average annual cost of attending a specific college.

Since net cost of attendance varies by family income, the College Scorecard also breaks down a given school’s average annual cost by family income level, so you’ll see one price for families making less than $30,000, another price for those with income of $30,001 to $48,000 and so on.

Although these numbers might not match your net cost of attendance exactly, they’re still valuable insight into what you can expect. On top of the College Scorecard tool, make sure to estimate the net cost of attendance on the financial aid websites of each college you’re applying to.

You might also reach out directly to financial aid officers for estimates. And remember to apply for as many scholarships as you can, since those awards can bring down your out-of-pocket costs dramatically.

3. See how much debt students have upon graduation

Another feature that makes the College Scorecard an essential college-finder tool is its data on how much debt the average graduate ends up with. For each school, you can see what percentage of students receive student loans, as well as the median amount of debt and monthly payment after leaving school.

Of course, everyone’s situation will be different, and the amount you need to borrow will depend on your financial aid package, scholarship awards and other factors.

Plus, it’s important to remember that these stats only represent federal student loans; they don’t tell you how much students are borrowing in private student loans.

4. Get a sense of average salaries after college

Another priceless feature of the College Scorecard is its data on median salaries after graduation. For each school, you can see how much a graduate who received federal financial aid would typically make 10 years after they first entered school.

While this data is interesting, it might not be particularly relevant for you. Although the school you attend might have some impact on your future salary, the major you choose is probably more relevant.

On the other hand, having that median salary figure can at least get you thinking about the return on investment (ROI) of your degree.

5. Check out graduation and retention rates

Another useful feature of the College Scorecard is its data on graduation and retention rates.

The graduation rates shows how many full-time students matriculated within six years at a four-year college or within three years at a two-year college. The retention rate, meanwhile, shows how many first-time, full-time freshmen returned after their first year.

If you see a particularly low graduation or retention rate, this could be a red flag that the school doesn’t provide sufficient support for students.

6. Learn more about test scores, programs and student body demographics

While the College Scorecard is unique for its insight into costs, debt and post-graduation salaries, it also has the typical data points you would expect from well-known college comparison sites.

For instance, you can see the average SAT and ACT test scores of accepted students. You can also check out student body demographics, including stats on socioeconomic, racial and ethnic diversity. And you can see the most popular academic programs and available areas of study.

All this information will hopefully help you find a school that meets your academic and lifestyle goals.

Use a variety of tools for choosing the right college

When making your college list, the College Scorecard can be a great device in your college finder toolbox. As a Department of Education site, it has data straight from the source on financial aid and student debt.

But remember that these stats are general and might not reflect your specific situation. So make sure to use other tools as well, such as CollegeBoard’s Big Future tool or the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator.

Also take a look at the websites of these schools you’re considering for materials and additional data. By doing research, reaching out to colleges and even touring campuses, you can find the right college for you.

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