How to Use College Navigator in Your School Search

The Department of Education's tool is one way to narrow down a college list.

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A young man sits near his laptop in a library.

Summer is halfway over, and you know what that means: college application season! The process is complex, but necessary to figure out where you're going to spend the next few years learning to be an adult. 

It's been 10 years since I started thinking about college applications and I'm a bit jealous of all the resources available to students today. My most recent object of envy is the College Navigator, a tool from the Department of Education that culls information submitted by universities and posts them in a somewhat digestible format online.

[Search the U.S. News directory for colleges that interest you.]

The easiest place to start for most people is to perform a simple search by school name. Let's say you've always dreamed of going to Northwestern University.

Simply type Northwestern University into the Name of School field, and College Navigator will return a search. Click on the campus you want, and you'll get a wide range of information, including:

• Tuition and Cost of Attendance, including a calculator that estimates how much tuition will rise over a four-year period

• Accreditation information

• Financial aid statistics, broken down by how many students are receiving grants or student loans. Pay attention to the grant and scholarship category because students don't have to repay grants. And with the nation's student loan debt topping $1 trillion, the more free money, the better.

A high percentage in the "Other student loans" field should cause some alarm, since most private loans don't have the flexible repayment options or protections of federal loans.

• Average net price, which means the actual cost of attendance after factoring in financial aid. These averages don't take into account factors that affect how much financial aid a student receives, including family size and dependent status.

College Navigator links to most schools' net price calculators to give a more personalized figure. To use them, you'll need documents including student and parental completed tax forms and W-2s, and a bit of time to fill out the online forms.

[Estimate your net price at more than 300 top colleges.]

• Graduation and transfer rates

• Cohort default rates, the percentage of graduates who have defaulted on loan repayment

• Other general information including special programs, admissions criteria, faculty numbers, and links to the school's website

You can also use the Navigator if you're undecided or don't know where to start your search. If you're looking at a certain location, you have three ways to search: by state, region, or zip code. It's especially useful for parents who want their kids to stay close to home, and equally helpful for kids who want the exact opposite.

And you can narrow by more filters, such as program, major, and degree offerings. There are also advanced search options, such as tuition, total number of undergraduates, athletic offerings, and flexible learning opportunities for students who work full-time. After you've whittled down your wish list, you can save your favorites and do a side-by-side comparison of up to four schools to see how they stack up against each other.

The Department of Education doesn't track everything yet. Look elsewhere if you want to find any of the following:

• Percentage of financial need a school can meet: This has a huge bearing on college affordability. Some schools guarantee 100 percent of student need met, which means that if you get in, the college will make sure you're financially able to attend. You can find this information through U.S. News and the CollegeBoard.

• Transfer credits: This is important for students who plan to start out at a two-year institution before moving on to a four-year university. You can search for transfer-friendly schools at the College Board, but to find out if a particular school accepts credits from another, you'll likely have to visit both schools' websites and follow up with admissions counselors.

[See which colleges enroll the most transfer students.]

• Employment rates: This is increasingly a more important metric, yet difficult to find. Payscale.com compiles average salary by college and major, but not how many alumni are actually working and, more importantly, working in a field related to their major. Hopefully, that data will be available soon.

A complete college search entails visiting campuses, talking to admissions counselors, and reaching out to students and alumni to make an informed decision. So take a look at the tools!

This week's Student Loan Ranger is a guest post written by Adaku Onyeka, the legal fellow at Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit organization advocating for 18- to 34-year-olds on the issues of healthcare, college affordability, and employment.