87 million.

That’s the number of users Facebook estimates that could have had their information given to Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential campaign.

By now most people have figured out the business model when a service is offered without a fee. Perhaps the comment that captures the exchange is that when the service is free the users are the product.

Much of the same is going on with the number of college search services that are available. This isn’t a criticism of those services. Fastweb, College Simply, College Raptor, and College Data are just a few services where families can find fantastic information related to their college search efforts. Much of the information is free, and the websites will invite you to set up an account if you’d like more.

It can be a great trade-off but make no mistake. It’s a trade-off. In exchange for that free account, those sites will be selling data associated with the account to colleges. I won’t pretend to know all of the information the colleges are asking for, but you can bet there will be a connection between the college information showing up in your mailbox and that online account you set up.

Many parents are surprised when the first college letters show up in the Fall semester of their student’s freshman year. Those mailers are usually related to the way the student filled out the PSAT. The form has a question that asks if students want to receive information from colleges, and almost every student checks yes. It doesn’t hurt anything, but that’s usually the source of those first mailers.

The great news is that you don’t have to add your name to any new websites until you want to. You have 3 great websites you can use for your search without adding your name to any more mailing lists.

BigFuture is a great site with a wealth of information available to you. It’s supported by College Board. If your student has taken a PSAT or any AP tests, they already have an account set up. It provides a “Finding your college fit” service that will help your student start their list of colleges. It asks a number of questions that students don’t usually know to ask. BigFuture’s Net Price calculator and Estimated Family Contribution calculators will give you a clearer picture of what college is likely to cost.

College Scorecard is another source of information you can access, and you’ve already paid for it. It’s supported by the Department of Education and based on the information universities are required to report to the government. It won’t be entirely exhaustive, but it’s another great start. You can dig deeply into a school’s information, including cost, and rates of financial aid. Two of the more interesting details you can get from the site are freshman retention and graduation rates. The site will let you know what percentage of freshmen return to a school after their first year. You can figure out what number seems right to you. The site does tell you the national average. It does the same for graduation rates. The graduation rates are calculated on a 6-year completion rate, which may catch some parents by surprise.

Once you’re ready for a deep dive into the data, College Navigator is where you’ll want to go. It’s supported by the National Center for Educational Statistics which is affiliated with the Institute of Education Sciences, which is also supported by the Department of Education. The site is set up so you can compare financial information from a number of different institutions. College Scorecard is set up for simple navigation. College Navigator is set up for deep research.

Your college search information is a valuable commodity. None of the sites available have risen to the level of manipulation likely with Cambridge Analytica, but you should be aware of the transactions that will be based on your account information.

Contact us if we can help you with your college search or test prep plans. Schedule an Introductory Consultation and lets create your college prep plan.