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Cool Web Tools

One of the fascinating battles shaping up in cyberspace pits an old media stalwart, U.S. News, against a new media upstart, College Edge. And as befits the topsy-turvy nature of the Web, they've formed a partnership with each other even as they've begun to duke it out for supremacy in the higher education space.  

Their weapons of choice? Web tools.

College Edge: Darling of the Portals  

For the moment, College Edge has forged a slight lead, attracting more than 1 million visitors a month. The San Francisco startup, launched in March 1996, describes itself as the Web's most popular resource for college information and services.

"We provide information on every accredited college in the United States," says Young Shin, chief executive officer of College Edge. "No one else offers the breadth and comprehensiveness that we deliver."  

On College Edge and its portal partners, users can research nearly 6,000 two-year, four-year and vocational colleges and graduate schools. And while its deep database is a major reason for its success, the site also offers several compelling tools:

  • a 'matchmaker' tool that helps students find the schools right for them;
  • applications for financial aid and scholarships, drawing from a database of $1.2 billion in award money;
  • a calculator to determine financial aid eligibility;
  • an intelligent agent that lets students register anonymously for recruitment by top schools and enables colleges to identify and contact prospective applicants;
  • forms that let students apply online to top colleges (the colleges pay the company a transaction fee for every application it processes).

Institutions that have outsourced their Web-based admissions functions to College Edge include Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley.

And in the past year, the site has forged business alliances with Excite, Netscape's Netcenter and Lycos. Yahoo recognizes College Edge as one of the best in the college category, though the two companies have no business relationship. U.S. News, meanwhile, has alliances with Excite and Snap. (The remaining major portal, Infoseek's Go network, has no college education partner ? and it shows in the paucity of its offerings. It gives both College Edge and U.S. News three stars as education resources.)

In its partnership with College Edge, announced March 1, U.S. News Online supplies a banner ad for users to fill out an online application on the College Edge site. U.S. News receives a small percentage of the proceeds from those commissions, but editors there say the main purpose was to offer a reader service.  

"We won't be building an application tool because we don't want to create the appearance that U.S. News is steering students to a particular school," says Susannah Fox, assistant managing editor for new media at U.S. News.  

U.S. News is renowned for its rankings of the nation's top graduate schools every spring and top colleges every fall. "We prefer to maintain an at-arm's-length approach so that we don't jeopardize our reputation for impartiality," Fox says.   Jane Emerson, education marketing manager at Lycos, says the portal is less interested in impartiality than in functionality. "We decided to partner with College Edge because of their online tools and their best-of-breed service and information," says Emerson, who is overseeing Lycos' integration of College Edge's 50,000 pages, due to be completed later this month. "Online submissions is what kids are doing today, and we were impressed by their online submission tool ? it can even check your application for errors."

U.S. News: Building on Trust

U.S. News profiles 1,400 colleges and universities based on reporting from the print staff. The Web site's database is even larger, offering a search tool for hundreds of community colleges through a partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges. Although College Edge seems to be the darling of the portals at the moment, U.S. News Online appears to offer a richer package, particularly if a student is applying to a four-year college or university. (Full disclosure: U.S. News flew me to their offices in Washington, D.C., in December for an interview to head up their new media department; I withdrew my application when I accepted a senior position with BabyCenter.)  

"U.S. News is known as the magazine that ranks things," Fox says. "At the Web site, we're trying to become known as the place where students can come and use the tools associated with the rankings."  

Want to shop for the best college? Punch up four different school names and the database will spit back a side-by-side list that compares each one in more than a dozen different categories. Other education tools on the site include:

  • an interactive feature that returns a list of scholarships you may qualify for;
  • a college cost calculator;
  • a GPA calculator that shows students the grades they need to obtain a desired grade point average at graduation;
  • a class scheduler that lets you fill in your course schedule for the semester to see scheduling conflicts and to share with your roommate.

"Our tools have become enormously popular," Fox says. "A few days after our grad school rankings came out on March 19, our engineers noticed an unusually high level of activity on our servers. Many of our users had already digested the top law and business school rankings and had moved on to our tools to figure out which school was best for them."  

Of course, education is just one of the subjects that U.S. News covers, although it drives the vast majority of the site's traffic, which averages 12 million to 14 million page views a month. The magazine's News You Can Use departments ? Money, Health, Tech, Travel and Work ? are perfectly suited to the Web, a medium less hospitable to long magazine articles than to short, useful snippets of information.   "We're trying to use the magazine as a jumping-off point for us to create tools that are truly useful to our readers," Fox says.  

Among the other tools on the site:

  • a best hospitals finder that lets you search by specialty or location;
  • a mutual fund finder that combs through a database of 2,400 reputable mutual funds;
  • a retirement calculator that estimates how much you need to save to meet your retirement goals.

"We're working on spring break calculator, where a college student can punch in a savings goal and figure out how much money he's got to splurge with right now," Fox says.  

U.S. News' renewed emphasis on tools, combined with its longstanding reputation as a trustworthy source for college information, may propel it to the top rung of the higher education space on the Web. While the competition between U.S. News Online and College Edge remains largely amicable for now, it's evident that a business partnership doesn't necessarily translate into a long-term alliance.  

Says College Edge's Shin: "U.S. News is never going to build the kinds of lasting relationships with universities that we have. Their college rankings, while valuable, is only one small part of the student decision-making process. We've got a wide array of tools, search functionality and databases that deliver best-of-breed service."  

Counters Fox: "I think U.S. News is definitely the leader in content about colleges. It's a bit odd even to compare us. College Edge is a business that gets people to apply to colleges so they can receive a payment from the schools. We're about helping students make the right choices. We're about being a complete college resource at every stage of the process. Really, there's no comparison."