Click your way to the right school
Get the latest stats and even take a virtual tour to find the college of your dreams.
NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- Finding a college-search tool on the Web isn't hard. There are plenty that will let you filter schools based on criteria including selectivity, diversity of the student body and sports teams.
The "Counselor-O-Matic" at PrincetonReview.com, the "College Matchmaker" at CollegeBoard.com and the college search at Petersons.com are just three examples.
Problem is, these sites' marketing departments are hungry for your kid's personal information and will ask for it. And just as important, you don't necessarily want much narrowing down early in the game.
"Be as broad as possible," says Michael London, CEO of College Coach, an educational advisory firm. "If you say you want an urban campus, you might eliminate a perfect school that's just outside a city."
That's why the best first screen is also one of the simplest. It comes straight from Uncle Sam: the College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics at nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator. Select basic constraints like location, public or private college and major, and it'll pump out a list of colleges.
Click on any of them and you get a full set of the latest data on expenses, aid, enrollment, admissions and graduation rates, majors and more, along with a Google map pinpointing location.
There's also a good comparison tool, and you can export data into an Excel sheet. Pare your list further by looking at individual colleges' Web sites, says Maria Laskaris, Dartmouth's dean of admissions.
Granted, they won't point out the school's flaws, but you can dig into course offerings and faculty profiles, among other data. Your child's guidance counselor also likely has access to official admissions materials via an online system called Naviance.
But that's an institutional product you can't tap at home. For an unvarnished view, go to CollegeConfidential.com, which has the best discussion boards around. Users debate the merits of thousands of colleges and handicap their chances of getting into their dream schools. The banter is mostly civil, but don't dismiss a school if it's being bashed: Rejected applicants can be harsh.
Before you spend thousands of dollars traipsing around the country to visit every campus that catches your kid's fancy, park her in front of CampusTours.com, which links to video tours of about 1,000 schools. The videos are mostly housed at the schools' own Web sites, so expect glossy presentations that highlight the good.
All this is available for free, and London suggests avoiding any pay-for-use online service. At this point, what's out there isn't worth your money, and you're about to part with lots of it.