When it came time for Michelle Kretzschmar’s son to apply to college, she knew she would have to do a lot of the heavy lifting herself. That’s because as a homeschooler, she was also the de facto college counselor. A background in data analysis made Kretzschmar—founder of DIY College Rankings—confident enough to dig right into the federal government’s Integrated Post Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS). In the end, she found a stellar Midwestern college for her son, where he could play baseball and study the classics—and where he also scored more than $15,000 a year in scholarships. Your Teen asked Kretzschmar for some tips on starting the college search process.
Q: What’s the first step?
Kretzschmar: Decide what priorities are important to you. My son wanted to play baseball and study the classics. He wanted a small college with an undergraduate teaching focus, and we also needed merit aid.
Q: Where did you start?
Kretzschmar: When I first started looking at a lot of the available web sites, I was frustrated to find I couldn’t easily search on the criteria that were important to me. Like for instance at the College Board, you can only search for enrollments under 2,000 or over 15,000. Then I found Collegeresults.org. This site is fantastic because they don’t limit what you search on. So I downloaded data from Collegeresults.org, which is the same data the government collects for IPEDS.
Kretzschmar: That’s a survey the U.S. government does of colleges and universities every year.
Q: What next?
Kretzschmar: The first thing I did was sort the data for graduation rate. That was important to me. I wanted a rate of at least 50 percent. That eliminated two-thirds of schools.
Q: You mean, only one-third of all four-year colleges have a 50 percent or higher graduation rate?
Q: Wow. Then what?
Kretzschmar: Well, once I had the data in my own spreadsheet, I could sort it any way I wanted. So next I sorted by enrollment. After awhile, you figure out what is important to you and what isn’t. For example, student faculty ratio became less important to me, but percentage of full time faculty became more important. I could also search on test score percentiles.
Q: How many schools did you end up with?
Kretzschmar: From the IPEDS data, I found 150 schools to work with. It sounds like a lot but it really wasn’t and it narrowed quickly. As I mentioned, my son wanted to play baseball, so we knew the coach would have to be interested. Then we also wanted to find schools where he would have a good shot of getting merit aid. And he wanted to study the classics.
Q: So how did you do that research?
Kretzschmar: I looked at the college’s websites and read a few books, including Colleges That Change Lives.
Q: How many schools did your son apply to?
Kretzschmar: My son ended up applying to ten schools. They included St. Olaf, Roanoke, Allegheny, Gustavus Adolphus, and Beloit. We thought he could get merit aid at these colleges. We also thought he had a chance of playing baseball, but they had to be schools that if baseball went away, he needed to be happy there.
Q: Tell me how you approached the merit aid?
Kretzschmar: Once you have the data in a spreadsheet, you can look for colleges where your student will be in the top quarter of applicants, so they’ll have a better chance of getting merit aid.
Q: How did your son do?
Kretzschmar: He got into all ten schools, with merit aid offers ranging from $7,500 to $20,000 a year. He ended up going to Beloit College, because he just clicked with the people there. He’s very happy.
Q: Congratulations. So your son was never tempted to apply to any of the most elite colleges?
Kretzschmar: No. I’m sure you can get a wonderful education there, but you can also get a wonderful education at other schools. And our definition of a good school was not how the school ranked on US News. As I mentioned, we also needed to find places we could get merit money and those elite colleges don’t typically offer that. We decided we would not apply to any reach schools that weren’t a match in terms of aid. If it was a school that we couldn’t afford without aid, then why set ourselves up for it?
Q: What next?
Kretzschmar: We visited a lot of schools. There are some very impressive schools out there, if people take the time to look. Like Gustavus Adolphus College. I’d never heard of that school. But it’s a really great school.
Q: What did you learn by approaching your search this way?
Kretzschmar: Start with the data and whittle it down. You’ll find great schools that way. There are over 1,500 four-year schools out there. The best one for your kid may be one you’ve never heard of.
Q: So anyone can do this?
Kretzschmar: Yes, I offer a spreadsheet that contains all the IPEDS data for four-year colleges and universities. There are 200 variables for 1,500 schools. The spreadsheet is available on our website. It’s a great place to start and is the most basic data people can work with.
For more information, including details on how to get the DIY College Ratings College Search Spreadsheet, visit DIYCollegeRankings.com.