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College Search 101: A College Search Tool Design Manual

Read the full literature review here.

For students without access to traditional college support infrastructure – like college-educated family members, school counselors, and community mentors – finding the best-fit institution is daunting. These students receive college information primarily through channels they know and understand, such as internet search engines and social media. This presents an opportunity to provide more and better information to students on these platforms and to target that information to help them identify their best-fit college.

We synthesized over 150 research reports and peer-reviewed journal articles to determine how to build a better college search tool and empower students to make the best possible college decisions. Our report is modeled as an instruction manual, with each section examining a different aspect of college search tool content and design. Some of our key findings include:

Students care about program information and return on investment

Students care just as much about what they are going to study as where they are going to study, often starting their search with queries of specific programs, majors, and career pathways. However, most college searches use institutions as their unit of analysis, which can hide stark variations in cost and outcomes between majors. Future employment opportunities are one of the most important factors in college choice, and access to outcomes information has the power to change students’ plans. These data, assuming they are available to developers, should be featured in every college search tool.

Tool designers must meet students where they already are

Today’s prospective students rely on smartphones, search engines, and social media to access information on college. Smartphone optimization is particularly important for reaching students-of-color and lower-income Americans who rely disproportionately on mobile broadband to access the internet. Relevant data, like graduation rate, net cost, and expected earnings, should be incorporated in search engine results and social media outlets, as nearly all students use at least one college search or aggregate review site in their search and nearly half of high school students report social media conversations having influenced where they plan to enroll.

Tools must inform multiple decisions related to college search

Effective tools are not a one-and-done experience, but rather should assist the user throughout the process, and integrate with tangible next steps in college selection and enrollment, like submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and school applications. Integration with other technologies, such as calendar apps, text messaging, and reminder emails, can also nudge the user with a gentle reminder, often making the difference between a prospective student ultimately enrolling in college or not.

Read College Search 101: A College Search Tool Design Manual