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Selling your Soul for College Search Help

Remember back when grocery stores first offered rewards programs? Fill out the application with some easy demographic information, and get a cool little plastic tag to hang on your keychain. And if you shop enough, or buy the right items, at the end of the month you'll have a discount on gas! Or special deals available only to rewards club members! Before long, your keychain was so stacked with reward club tags, you could hardly fit it in your pocket.

And then came the hard truth: The grocery store doesn't give rewards because it likes you. It gives you a measly 5 cent discount on gas in return for your personal information. Your name, address, email address, and buying habits. And then sells that information to others.

There is no free lunch.

Maybe we understand the grocery store wanting to make profit at our expense. But isn't college designed for a higher, more noble purpose?

Yes. But.

As high school students and their overwhelmed parents try and navigate the increasingly complex world of college admissions, there is no scarcity of websites eager to help. They promise to identify the best college, find the most scholarship money, organize your applications, prep you for your SATs or ACTs, revise your essays, give you video tours of campus, and give you no end of premium "insider" advice. 

Just register! Give your name, your email address, your home address, the courses you've taken, the grades you've earned, your test scores, the clubs you belong to, your parents' names, the colleges you're considering, your financial status, the key to your diary.... Well, I'm certainly showing my age with the last one, but you get the idea. Oh, and by the way, buried in the fine print, they'll be selling all that information to someone else. Student loan providers. Test prep companies. For profit colleges. Companies who sell sheets and towels for your dorm.

Here's the straight scoop. There are only two big data bases of information about colleges. One (IPEDS--the Integrated Post Secondary Education Data System) is maintained by the Department of Education, and the other (CDS--the Common Data Set) is maintained by the College Board, Peterson's, and US News & World Report. You can access that information directly, without giving away any of your personal information. The catch is that it's just big, ugly, clunky, boring spreadsheets. No fancy graphics, no bells and whistles.

We use rewards cards because they are convenient, and we accept the trade offs. Use college assistance websites and apps under the same terms. Pick one, maybe two. Use as much of the site as you can without registering. Realize that your data is being sold, or that individual colleges may have paid for preferential search results. Access the IPEDS data directly. Access the CDS data through College Board, with which you've probably already registered when you took the SAT. Seek out professional help from your school counselor, or from an independent educational consultant.

College search sites are big business. Don't sell your soul for the next slick, flashy mobile app or website promising a quick answer to what is really a complex set of questions.

Peggy JenningsComment