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Google launches new college search feature

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Searches for four-year colleges in the US will now increasingly include rich detail on admissions, student profiles, costs of study, and graduate outcomes
  • Google is actively showcasing this rich institutional data as a new school selection aid for prospective students
  • The move carries a number of implications for students and recruiters alike, and may mark the beginning of an expanded effort in school search for the tech giant

LinkedIn has its University Pages, Facebook is partnering with community colleges, and now Google has quietly – to the extent that one of the world’s tech giants can do anything quietly – launched a new college search service designed to make it easier for students to “explore educational options and find a college that meets your needs.”

Google introduced the new service a couple of weeks ago, and, for the moment at least, it is focused on four-year colleges in the United States. Google being Google, it also appears that results will vary by user location, and that the level of information provided will vary both by institution and by device, particularly whether the user is accessing the service on a desktop or mobile screen.

With all of those caveats firmly in place, for users (a) in the US, (b) searching for information on a four-year college, and (c, rather tellingly) on a mobile device, the new service provides an impressive range of institutional detail directly in the main search results. This includes admissions information (such as average admissions scores), student demographics, tuition costs (before and after financial aid), alumni profiles, and real insights on graduate outcomes.

Screen captures of trial results on the new college search service for four-year colleges in the US. Source: Google

As a statement from the search giant explains, the new service draws on some relevant data sets but also some fine-tuning informed by educators and student counsellors, “This new experience uses public information from the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a comprehensive data set available for four-year colleges. We also worked with education researchers and nonprofit organisations, high school counsellors, and admissions professionals to build an experience to meet your college search needs.”

The service aims to build on this foundation by crowd-sourcing additional content – “suggest an edit” options abound for each content element in the search results – and by providing ready options for institutions to authenticate themselves as managers of the “online presence” in question.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, digital marketing executive Matt Cyr recommends, “Colleges and universities should audit and optimise the metadata-related top-ranked organic search results to ensure they are accurate and convey the message your institution wants to send. You should also review the content of the pages themselves and look for opportunities for improvement. For example, Google is showing SAT scores at part of the admissions information, so it would be helpful to also have that type of information on [the institution’s] website.”

It is hard to say at this early stage of the rollout how widespread the new service might become. Will it extend beyond four-year colleges in the US, for example, or to other countries? Will it provide information of particular relevance to international students for users outside the US? Whatever the case, the new college search feature is nevertheless notable as it marks another major tech player signalling its interest in the education space and putting some vital statistics for institutions in the spotlight. “Colleges should realise that the first thing students see now when they search for a college is some data on outcomes, pricing, test scores,” Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said recently to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “If students and families want the data, they can get it quickly.”

“It’s clear that this is a work in progress for Google,” says Mr Cyr. “So it will be important for colleges and universities to keep an eye on this part of the search experience and continually look for opportunities to improve the quality of the information that appears there – while of course ensuring that your website is doing everything it can to attract users and keep them engaged.”

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