How to find the best college that fits your budget? Try the College Scorecard The U.S. Department of Education has updated its College Scorecard — a trove of college-based performance data meant to help prospective students choose the best school for them.

Want to find an affordable college? There's a website for that

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are big changes to the College Scorecard. No, this isn't about your March Madness bracket. The Scorecard is a trove of data available online that the Department of Education hopes will help potential students choose the college that's best for them. It can tell you everything from a school's graduation rate to former student earnings, down to how much debt you can expect to take on. Here's NPR's Cory Turner with a quick tour.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Since it came out back in 2013, the College Scorecard has always intimidated me. It's big and unwieldy, but it's also amazing, and it just might save you or someone you love a lifetime of student debt and heartache. So let's meet our fearless leader.

MICHAEL ITZKOWITZ: I am Michael Itzkowitz.

TURNER: He worked in the U.S. Department of Education

ITZKOWITZ: From 2010 to 2016.

TURNER: And during much of that time, he had one huge job.

ITZKOWITZ: I am the former director of the College Scorecard.

TURNER: In other words, he is the perfect tour guide. He lives in Florida, so we hop on Zoom...

ITZKOWITZ: Are you able to see?

TURNER: Yup.

...And go to collegescorecard.ed.gov. There, we start with a local search because Itzkowitz says...

ITZKOWITZ: Most students look for a college close to their home

TURNER: To save money on room and board.

ITZKOWITZ: So let's see here.

TURNER: So he plugs in his ZIP code in Florida and asks for all the colleges within 50 miles that offer a bachelor's degree, and - poof - a list appears of 39 colleges and universities. Now, right off the bat, you can see their graduation rates and the average annual cost and one of the big new changes from the Ed Department.

ITZKOWITZ: The top salaries of former students at each institution.

TURNER: In our search, the top school by a mile is a place called West Coast University-Miami, where students' median earnings are a whopping $97,000. Spoiler alert - it's a nursing school. To show off what else the Scorecard can do, Itzkowitz compares two other schools.

ITZKOWITZ: Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University.

TURNER: Both have graduation rates right around 60%, which we know, thanks to another new change, is about the midpoint for four-year schools.

ITZKOWITZ: Their students earn almost the same exact amount - $50,000 a year.

TURNER: They're even neighbors.

ITZKOWITZ: And I just happen to know that because I drive by them all the time.

TURNER: But Itzkowitz says, thanks to the Scorecard, it's also clear there is one massive difference.

ITZKOWITZ: The average annual cost is almost four times as much at Lynn University in comparison to Florida Atlantic University.

TURNER: And keep in mind, you can do these kinds of comparisons between schools anywhere in the U.S.

There's one more nifty detail you might want to check out with newly updated data. It's the percentage of a college's former students who earn more than the typical high school graduate. Now, granted, that's a pretty low bar, but it's important to know if you're considering taking out loans to get a degree that is essentially worthless.

Itzkowitz then pulls up a private for-profit college system with 10 campuses across Florida.

ITZKOWITZ: Only 31% of these students are earning more than a typical high school graduate - less than a third.

TURNER: And that's not the kind of stat a college is going to put on its brochure. Lucky for you, it is exactly the kind of stat the Education Department and the College Scorecard think you should know.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

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