The college tour goes online

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

For those parents and students whose New Year's resolution is to start the search for the right college, some new – and free – tools are coming online to make that task a little bit easier.

The websites – College Portrait ( and U-CAN ( – offer essential information to make it easy to compare participating schools. Interested in the professor-student ratio? The racial breakdown on campus? A detailed picture of costs and financial aid? Here's where you can get a glimpse or follow the links to dig deeper.

These sites are one answer to the mounting pressure to make the often-frustrating system of admissions and financial aid easier for families to navigate. Some education advocates hope they will prove to be the first step toward building an even more comprehensive website that would include guidance-counseling components. Students should be empowered to choose for themselves what matters most, they say. And they hope these nonprofit alternatives will help reverse the brand-name frenzy fed by popular rankings such as the annual guide by U.S. News & World Report.

Just over a year ago, the report of the Education Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education sounded the call for more accountability and transparency. College and university groups moved quickly to make the information they already gather more available to the public, aiming to head off potential federal mandates.

"Parents and students ... are trying to make some big, difficult decisions, so the more transparent we are about our business and the outcome of our business, the better it is for everyone," says Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system.

All 23 Cal State campuses will be represented on College Portrait, the joint venture of two public university associations, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). "It's important for all of higher education to participate so that we can continue to gain the public's confidence about how we use the public's resources to educate America's future workforce," Mr. Reed says.

College Portrait will offer some innovative features – such as an interactive cost calculator. People have a hard time figuring out the true cost of college, and low-income families often believe college is out of reach, says David Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs at NASULGC. "We put the calculator in so that by entering a dozen pieces of data, you can [get] a reasonable estimate of what the net cost will be of attending a specific university."

Visitors to the site, which is still in its pilot stages, can see a breakdown of academic progress and graduation rates at each school – not only the percentage that graduate in four years and six years, but also the percentage that are still enrolled in higher education or have graduated from another institution.

Debate over access

Schools that want to be listed on College Portrait also have to agree to post "learning outcomes" data. Various assessments already exist to measure how much students gain in broad areas such as problem-solving and writing skills. But whether those results should be reported publicly is a matter of heated debate in higher education.

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

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 ( 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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