7 Tips for Narrowing Your College List

Compare key factors at similar schools to put together your ideal list.

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One of the hardest and most important tasks in picking a college is composing the initial list: the set of colleges that includes all you'd be content to wind up at. It's often easy to find one, two, or three colleges you'd really like, with ideas from a parent or older sibling, high school counselor, or website. But it's much harder to find relevant alternatives: colleges similar to your first choice, but ones that, for one reason or another, are better for your needs.

In helping our nephew with the college quest this fall, we've discovered a great new website, College Results Online (CRO), that not only helps you compose your list of colleges to apply to, but also provides a wealth of authoritative data not easily available elsewhere, all in a user-friendly, easy-to-navigate presentation. To help seniors still undecided on their final list and juniors who want to get an early start over Christmas break, we've invited guest blogger Mamie Lynch, a higher education research and policy analyst at The Education Trust, to share the secrets of using the site—and finding wonderful, hidden choices for college, in the process:

Picking the right college can help launch a person's career. But too often, students and parents make this decision without knowing all of the information about each campus that's available to them. The Education Trust has developed a tool, College Results Online, to help students and their families decipher the reams of data that can swamp decision making. CRO lets users compare four-year colleges nationwide for the characteristics that count, such as the proportion of students who actually finish college with a degree in hand. Here are our best tips on how to use the site:

1. Gauge your chance for success: Students are often so consumed with getting into college that they don't think about what really counts: earning a degree. All students who set foot on campus plan to make it to graduation; yet, in reality, fewer than three out of five will actually earn a bachelor's degree within six years. But fear not: some colleges outrank others in the crucial job of graduating their students. To make an informed decision about prospective schools, search for a college and check out the "Graduation Rates" section of CRO.

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Extra pointer: Bank on six, but shoot for four. Most graduation rates, including the national average cited in tip #1, are based on a six-year time frame for completing a four-year degree. On most campuses, the graduation rate jumps substantially if you add those two extra years. But if you – like most students and parents – don't want to stay in college or pay tuition for two more years, check the four-year graduation rates for each school under "Retention and Progression Rates."

Best-kept secret: On average, some groups of students graduate at lower rates than others, but these gaps are not inevitable. In fact, colleges that concentrate on ensuring success for all students often have small gaps or no gaps at all. Under "Similar Colleges" in CRO, click on "Grad Rates by Race AND Gender" to see how well colleges serve different groups of students—and how well they're likely to help you (or your son or daughter) earn a diploma.

2. Find the right alternatives: Colleges that seem similar can produce strikingly different student outcomes. After searching for a school in CRO, click on the "Similar Colleges" tab to compare campuses with common characteristics, like the qualifications of entering students and the size and diversity of the student body. Not only will this information help you add schools similar to the one(s) you've already put on your list, it will help you discover schools that you haven't yet heard of that would be good choices given your preferences and SAT/ACT scores. For example, who knew that Muhlenberg College, Union College, Centre College, Skidmore College, Beloit College, and 10 other colleges would be good alternatives if you were interested in Pitzer College?

3. Don't be bowled over by the tuition: Cost plays a big role in every family's college decision process. But don't let sticker shock alone shape your choices. Many schools offer grants and scholarships, so students who can't afford full tuition pay only part of it. In CRO, check the "Average Institutional Grant Aid" to learn how much aid most students receive. (This number is an average for all students; ask the school's financial aid office about your individual aid package.) And remember, for most types of financial aid, you only get it if you apply for it, so be sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as well as any forms for your state, and submit them before the deadline.

[Get more advice on how to pay for college.]

4. Learn who'll be learning with you: College is about gaining the skills needed for a successful career, but it's also about widening one's horizons and learning to work well with people from all backgrounds. CRO's "Student Characteristics" tab provides a snapshot of the racial/ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic diversity of each school's students. It even shows the percentage of students from other countries. In today's increasingly globalized world, it's more important than ever to live and learn with people from different experiences and cultures.

[See schools with high percentages of students from foreign countries.]

5. Think about location: Many believe the best college option is the one closest (or farthest away) from home. But consider whether proximity to home is worth the risk of attending a school where the chances of graduating are slim. Keep in mind all of your options for higher education in the region that works best for you and your family. Use CRO's "Advanced Search" to find a large pool of colleges in your state or near your ZIP code and then choose the best one for you.

6. Look beyond reputation: It can be fun to go to school with friends and relatives or cheer for a winning sports team. What matters more is families cheering at a graduation ceremony. Read Ed Trust's analysis of last year's college football Bowl Championship Series to find out where sheepskins (diplomas, that is) trump pigskins. And watch out for hype about rankings such as "top party schools." Who needs a top "party school" if that college doesn't give students the best chance of success?

7. Stretch yourself—and your opportunities: Don't limit your search to colleges that you think will be easy or that are "safe schools," based on their entry requirements. Research finds that students are actually less likely to graduate if they enroll at a school that rates below their academic qualifications. Use CRO to identify schools with median SAT (or ACT) scores similar to yours, but also consider applying to colleges with slightly higher standards. Aiming high might provide a better opportunity for success. Why sell yourself short?

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