The Top 6 College Search Websites for 2024

Tyson Schritter / Colleges of Distinction »

Updated April 17th, 2024

Thanks to the internet, the days of bulky college catalogs are gone. Now, college search websites are everywhere. With thousands of colleges out there, it can be overwhelming to pick the right one. How can you narrow down your options and pick the best school for you?

There are a number of websites that offer information that can help a prospective college student choose potential colleges. Let’s look at some of the options and explore how Colleges of Distinction’s methods differ from other school finders out there.

1. US News and World Report’s Best Colleges Report (Methodology)

US News is the largest of the college search websites. They provide almost 50 different types of numerical rankings and lists to help students narrow their college search. They have tools to help any prospective student build a list of schools that fit his/her needs.

On the US News site you can search by field of study or by individual college and view individual college profiles. They also provide lists by area of interest such as the best undergraduate engineering programs or historically black colleges and universities. They even conduct annual surveys of college counselors from top-ranked high schools to help come up with the colleges they think offer the best educational opportunities.

For their categories and rankings, US News relies on the Carnegie classification-a system of organizing colleges and universities by mission, size and structure. Each year, US News collects data from a large number of colleges and universities based on 16 different indicators of academic achievement and educational practices where each data point gets a weighted score. In addition to survey data, US News collects other data from sources such as the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Overall, US News’ rankings can be very insightful, but many of the details about the schools and their rankings are hidden behind a paywall. While you can view basic college profiles for free, you will need to pay $39.95 per year for access to additional profile information, financial aid statistics, and other data that may prove necessary for your college search.

2. Colleges of Distinction (Methodology)

The Colleges of Distinction method is completely different than other sites. We don’t want to just help prospective college students find a good school; we want to help them find the right school for them.

To achieve this goal, we don’t just focus on the biggest or best-known schools. We find colleges from all across the country that are doing innovative and exciting things with their educational models. We focus on quantitative as well as qualitative measures.

The schools we feature aren’t the only big name state schools where a single class can have 400 or more enrolled students or the elite “highly rejective” private schools. Instead, our member schools are often smaller, with a lower student-teacher ratio promoting great teaching.

The schools we feature also value what we call, “High Impact Educational Practices” that inspire students to engage with their classmates, get to know their faculty, and dig into lots of hands-on educational opportunities. With this kind of education, we believe students will find their college years more interesting and that the learning they gain will last a lifetime.

In our school listings, we focus on schools that value what we call the Four Distinctions:

Engaged Students
Great Teaching
Vibrant Community
Successful Outcomes

In our campus profiles, we explore what makes each school great with specific examples of programs that encourage students to engage in research, participate in community service, or enroll in study abroad programs.

We encourage you to check out the Colleges of Distinction School Finder to see if our method of choosing colleges and universities can help you identify the right college for you.

3. The Princeton Review (Methodology)

The Princeton Review’s rankings focus on annual surveys of current college students attending each school. They ask students 80 questions about academics, student life, fellow students, and their personal experiences and then rank each answer on a scale from 1 to 5. Based on these results, they compile an overall score for each school and use that score to determine the top 380 colleges.

They offer 62 different rankings for colleges. Similar to US News, colleges are broken down into different categories to help students narrow down their choices with the ability to view each school’s profile. You can review colleges by region, environmental friendliness, and even search for schools that have the best college libraries.

The Princeton Review does not rank the schools in the book numerically either as a whole or within categories. Instead, they suggest that any school on a top-20 list is an excellent reflection of that particular category.

The Princeton Review has a variety of lists on academics, campus life, libraries, career services and more. Some of the more unusual lists include colleges where students study the most, schools with the best science lab facilities, and campuses with the best college radio stations.

To access any of these lists on The Princeton Review college search website, you need to create an account using your email address or link to a Facebook account. Also, The Princeton Review encourages students to sign up for their College Admission Counseling program which costs $1,800

4. Washington Monthly’s College Guide (Methodology)

Washington Monthly takes a different angle for college rankings. They focus their rankings on schools’ “contribution to the public good” as defined by social mobility, research, and service.

The ratings focus on the 1,540 colleges listed with the U.S. Department of Education that offer master’s, bachelor’s, and associate degrees; conduct research; participate in federal financial aid programs; and meet other specialized criteria.

In their “Best Bang for the Buck” list, they feature 1,540 colleges and examine the quality of schools in five different geographic regions based on the following criteria:

Student loan default rate
Graduation rate
Graduation rate performance
Percent of Pell Grant students
Net price of attendance

Washington Monthly measures a school’s performance in each of their categories (service, research, and social mobility) based on their participation in a variety of community service projects and categories, financial aid as well as other measures. Much of the data comes from the U.S. Department of Education, national organizations for community service, as well as data self-reported by individual institutions.

The site itself is pretty simple with the rankings presented as a data-heavy spreadsheet. Unlike many of the competing sites, there are no individual college profile pages.

5. Forbes Magazine’s America’s Top Colleges (Methodology)

Forbes’ ranks 650 schools assessed on “output” rather than “input.” Instead of focusing on admissions criteria, Forbes examines students’ return on investment (ROI) and what they get out of their college experience. This system focuses on how much debt students carry, what their educational experiences included, and career and graduate school placement.

The Forbes rating system measures schools based on the following criteria (and relative weighting):

Student Satisfaction (25%)
Post-Graduate Success (32.5%)
Student Debt (25%)
Graduation Rate (7.5%)
Academic Success (10%)

Forbes offers a single list of top colleges with brief profiles on each school plus a few rankings for the top 25 schools by region, the top 25 liberal arts colleges and the top 25 public colleges. While the information is clearly presented, it is more limited than many of the other sites.

Forbes college ranking site also offers a wide selection of articles on the college experience that may help students become more informed about the college selection process.

6. Money  (Methodology)

To find colleges that combine quality and affordability, Money analyzed dozens of data points, including graduation rates, cost of attendance, financial aid and alumni salaries.

They start by examining academic quality and then look at tuition and financial aid measures to come up with the best values. They also rank schools on competitiveness, graduation rates, academic support, student indebtedness and cost/financial aid.

Like other sites, Money analyzes these common metrics in their rankings. However, they attempt to go further by calculating what they call a “value add.”

The estimation of a college’s “value add” involves calculating its performance—after adjusting for the types of students it enrolls—across key metrics such as graduation rates, student loan repayment and default rates, and post-graduation earnings.

Regression analysis, a statistical technique, was then employed to model the expected impact of factors such as student test scores, GPA, and income on key outcomes like graduation rates and future earnings. The disparity between these anticipated values and the actual reported values reflects the college’s “value add.”

All the information for Money’s Best Colleges of 2023, which includes tuition prices, financial aid, percentages, average student debt and early career earnings, was researched by Money. However, Money does not guarantee that this information will apply to each person nor guarantees any early career earnings.