Oct 21, 2011

College Search Made Easy with College Navigator

A hidden gem among search engines, the NCES College Navigator has none of the bells and whistles of more commercial websites. Nothing flashes, no songs play. The graphics aren’t colorful or particularly appealing. In short, College Navigator looks like exactly what it is—a site maintained by your federal government.

But don’t be deceived. College Navigator contains incredible tools tapping into the college database maintained by the U.S Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. No other college search engine produces better or more up-to-date information relevant to admissions statistics, retention, financial aid, or academics. In fact, several commercial sites use data gleaned from College Navigator to inform their search engines. So why not go directly to the source?

To understand how College Navigator can support college search, let’s go on a test drive using American University, located in northwest DC. The first trick is to find the website, which has an impossible-to-remember web address: www.nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator. Enter American University and District of Columbia, and voilà, a link appears.

Click on the link and the software instantly produces 12 categories of information as well as a handy Google map. Selecting Retention and Graduation Rates, I find that 91 percent of the full time students who began their studies at American in the fall of 2009, returned in the fall of 2010—an improvement over the previous year of one percent. I also learned that American’s most recent 4-year graduation rate is 75 percent and the 6-year rate for the same group of students is 79 percent—far above the national average of 56 percent. It also appears that females have a slightly better rate of graduation than males.

Under Financial Aid, I see that 79 percent of American’s 7,070 undergraduates received financial aid. Seventy percent received grants—money that doesn’t have to be repaid—and the average grant is $18,155. I also see that 55 percent of American’s students borrowed money for college and the average amount is $8,128.

Also on the site, you can find the academic profile of admitted students, the numbers of students in each of the school’s academic majors, campus crime statistics, and the latest addition to the College Navigator site—a net price calculation. Note that this is the government's calculator and may produce different results from those found on individual college websites.

Another nifty feature of College Navigator is that you can enter your own variables when searching for schools. For example, I directed the software to find four-year public and private schools within 100 miles of my home. The search engine promptly produced a list of 127 schools in order of distance from the zip code I entered.

You can even look for schools within a specific standardized test range or those with particular varsity athletics. For example, a search of four-year colleges and universities with varsity bowling teams produced six pages of institutions including Bowie State, Howard, and Virginia Union Universities.

Before spending money on expensive college manuals or exchanging personal information for access to web-based services, check with College Navigator. You may be surprised at how much the federal government knows and is willing to provide for free!

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