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The college tour goes online

New websites paint a portrait of college and university life, providing one-stop shopping for prospective students.

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Because of the learning-outcomes requirement, the University of California, another public system in the state, has declined to participate.

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Only about 300 out of more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States use such assessments so far, Mr. Shulenburger says. Schools that sign on to College Portrait will have the next four years to begin tracking the learning-outcomes results before being required to post them.

U-CAN – a site put together by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) – offers similar information in a template. It includes links to a school's own website for details on areas such as internships and study abroad. U-CAN does not require schools to post learning-outcomes data, but allows them to link to such information if they choose.

"Given the extraordinary diversity of our institutions ... what you need is a whole range of ways to assess quality," says NAICU president David Warren. A school whose curriculum is focused on the "Great Books" is going to measure success very differently from a school with strengths in engineering, for instance.

Launched in late September, U-CAN has nearly 600 colleges participating, and many others in the planning stage. College Portrait expects to have many schools represented by the spring.

For members of Congress who have been advocating for more accessible information, both sites are encouraging. A version of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act moving through the House would set up a voluntary system similar to U-CAN.

Focus on retention rates

Judy Bracken, a college and career specialist at George Mason High School in Falls Church, Va., says U-CAN is "really user-friendly; it's a fun, bright site." And she expects the cost calculator on College Portrait to be a popular feature. But she doesn't see the sites as unique.

"The College Board has [information] on almost every single college," she says. While she relies on a search tool that her school district pays for, she says various free resources are already available.

Wherever people do their searches, one piece of data she advises them to scrutinize is the retention rate – the number of first-year students who return the next year. "That really does tell you, Did they market themselves in a true fashion?"

Ms. Bracken encourages students to shake off the pressure to chase the Ivy League or other name-brand schools. "If I can just get kids to look really carefully at what is the best fit for them, then I feel like I've done my job."

Virtual counselors

There is an effort under way to incorporate some of the tried and true advice of guidance counselors into a free comprehensive website. The nonprofit group Education Conservancy (www.educationconservancy.org) is leading the charge to develop a prototype and raise the estimated $400,000 it would need to start up such a site.

With so many students not having enough access to college counselors, there's a "dire" need for a site that will offer much more than just information templates, says executive director Lloyd Thacker, a former admissions officer and high school counselor. Thacker is also in the forefront of the movement to have colleges boycott the U.S. News rankings. "We're serving the needs of kids in a process that's become increasingly commercialized," he says.

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