Changing the Game: How New Tools Are Shifting the College Decision-Making Process

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, finding the right college to attend meant leafing through thick books with wafer thin paper. Each page listed an institution and its vital statistics – average test score, cost, faculty to student ratio, and more. I remember spending hours poring over the books, flipping back and forth. Wait, did I put a sticky note on this college? Why had I folded the page down for that university? While I love my alma mater and am glad I attended there, this was not an efficient way to choose a school.

As technology has changed, though, so too has the college admissions process. The most recent iteration is College Scorecard, a website from the U.S. Department of Education. The new site provides a user-friendly way to search for the college or program students want. Criteria include cost, zip code, size and ACT/SAT scores. But what does this mean for you? What impact will this site, and its inevitable imitators, have on your recruitment efforts?

By the Numbers: Analyzing College Scorecard

College Scorecard is not the first website designed to help students find the college or university that’s right for them, but it is one of the newest. While I never thought I’d be touting a government website as a model of design and utility (the healthcare.gov debacle instantly springs to mind), in my opinion, College Scorecard does a lot of things right.

First, it’s user friendly. Unlike College Navigator, it has a clean, simple interface that is optimized for mobile devices. Clearly, the design of this site is meant to help students and their families understand their options in a way that is accessible and not overwhelming. Visitors can choose from program, location, size, cost, or any combination to find the school that best meets their criteria.

Second, it looks at some critical points that other sites don’t spend as much time on. Not only can you discover how much average tuition is, but you also can see how much the average student earns after graduation. In a time of spiraling college debt and worries over a student loan bubble, students want to know that they will get a return on their college investment in the form of better jobs and higher salaries.

Third, the website offers some significant comparative tools that help consumers evaluate colleges as a gestalt, rather than a single entity. Graduation rate, average annual cost, and salary after graduation are all measured against the national average, so consumers can understand if there are cheaper schools available, or if the graduation rate is alarmingly low.

Finally, the website offers significant information about financial aid, and since it’s powered by the federal government, the information is non-biased. It even has a loan calculator to help students understand their predicted monthly payment based on how many loans they take out. More information can only help consumers make smarter decisions about their future, and since student loans are one of the first major decisions a young adult will make, and is a decision with long-lasting consequences, arming these consumers with the best knowledge available is a powerful tool.

The site appears to be accomplishing its goal of educating potential education consumers; on average, visitors view 6.5 pages and spend almost 9 minutes on the site. Clearly, the information is useful and encourages people to spend time exploring their educational options. Interestingly, the top keyword that is driving people to the site is “fafsa;” potential students are desperate for information about their financial aid options. Making this a prominent part of your own institution’s website can help provide the information students want while also reassuring them that your tuition is achievable.

So, What Does This Mean for You?

I promise, I am not being paid by College Scorecard to write this post! But I do think the site is indicating trends that are going to become increasingly important for institutions to consider. Here are four things that I predict are going to be increasingly important:

Proving your value. This is something I’ve been encouraging our partner schools to do for years; you need to be tracking outcomes and sharing those results with prospective students. There is a lot of competition out there, and unless you can rest on your brand (and let’s face it, only a very few colleges can), you need to make sure potential students know that attending your school will bring them the return they want. I don’t know how accurate the information about salary after graduation is, but the fact that College Scorecard is putting that information out there in a very public way means your institution also needs to focus on that information on your website. Otherwise, you risk losing control of your own narrative, and have to rely on external sites to accurately report your data.

Focusing on affordability. Much as the Internet made comparison shopping for homes and cars easier than ever, now it’s also influencing how consumers shop for an education. Gone are the days when you can just tell potential students you’re affordable; now they can see exactly how you stack up against the competition. You need to make sure either that your tuition is comparable, or that the benefit your institution brings is so obvious as to make the price tag worth it.

Knowing your competition. There are a lot of colleges in the United States, and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Use the data available to you to understand what sets your institution apart. Comparison shopping isn’t only for consumers – it also can be a powerful tool for companies (and in this case, colleges) as well. If you know how you rank compared to those in your region, or of your size, or of your religious persuasion, you also can better understand your strengths and shore up your vulnerabilities.

Embracing change. If there is one thing College Scorecard proves, it’s that there will always be change. Sites that not so long ago were considered cutting edge now seem dowdy and dated. Change can be difficult to embrace in academia, but it’s increasingly important. Those colleges and universities that are seen as flexible and adaptable also will be perceived as more relevant in a dynamically shifting economy.

This week, I challenge you to look at your institution on College Scorecard. How do you match up? Do you think your valuation is fair? If so, why? If not, why not?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com