Navigating the College Search: NACAC’s Expert Insights

Administration September 2023 PREMIUM
Angel Perez, the chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), offers guidance on finding the perfect fit for students and parents seeking the ideal college, emphasizing the importance of not solely relying on the U.S. News and World Reports rankings.

While many college applicants and their parents read the U.S. News and World Reports rankings of the best colleges to research the university that best suits them, several experts caution against using it as the basis of a college search.

Angel Perez, the chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), an Arlington, Va.-based organization of more than 27,000 college admission officers and high school counselors, downplays relying on this ranking and highlights its limitations.

For example, The College Solution website noted that U.S. News and World Report’s rankings “are a major reason for the tremendous stress and mental issues that many of these students experience.” It recommends that “students and parents don’t put so much faith in them.”

Ron Lieber wrote a column in the New York Times on comparison shopping of college prices, noting that in 2011, the federal government passed a rule that colleges must post their net price calculator of the annual cost of attendance on their websites. Applicants must enter some background financial information, and an estimate of the college’s cost emerges.

Perez of NACAC epitomizes the first-generation Latino college graduate who succeeded. He’s of Puerto Rican heritage, was raised in the South Bronx, graduated from Skidmore College, and served as vice-president for Enrollment and Student Success at Trinity College in Connecticut, as well as on the faculty at UCLA’s College Counseling Certification Program and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

In this Q&A, Perez offers recommendations on the best ways to research a college.

Hispanic Outlook: You’ve been skeptical of students and parents using the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings. Why?

Perez: The ranking is one of the worst things that has happened to higher education. It tries to oversimplify the quality of an education, which is complicated and nuanced. In fact, I’ve spent my career on college campuses and every school has a different culture, focus and mission. These are not things that are quantifiable.

H.O.: What makes it so flawed?

Perez: In America, we would never evaluate hospitals based on how healthy people were when they walked in the door. U.S. News rankings rewards institutions for the quality of students it admits, based on the students with the highest test scores and grade point averages. You’re evaluating colleges on the input, not the output.

H.O.: How can it mislead parents?

Perez: Rankings do not help families understand anything about the actual experience of what it’s like to be on a campus. All the research shows that the students who thrive on college campuses do so because they feel a sense of belonging, a sense of connection. None of that is covered in those rankings.

H.O.: So, if you downplay the U.S. News ranking, then where are the best places for researching colleges?

Perez: I’d lead them to our website, They’d be able to learn about different colleges and universities based on their interests. It’s a good first stop for students. As a result, they’d also be connected to college fairs. They’d start with academic interests which would whittle down to other interests such as: What are their favorite extracurricular activities? Do they want to play a sport? Are they more comfortable in a rural setting or urban environment?

H.O.: What other websites would you recommend?

Perez: I’d also recommend two resources from the U.S. Department of Education:  College Navigator-National Center for Education Statistics ( and College Scoreboard (, which help students match with colleges and help compare student outcome and return on investments. I’d add the College Board’s website (

H.O.: How much of the college search is based on price?

Perez: For most families, it is the number one concern. It’s evolved over time because colleges have gotten so expensive. It’s based on net price. The issue with the American consumer is a gross misunderstanding of how colleges work. Most families do not pay the sticker price they will find on a college website. There’s an extraordinary amount of discounting based on need-based financial aid and merit-based aid.

H.O.: What are your best tips for applying for grants and scholarships?

Perez: Most students receive grants and scholarships directly from the college institution. You must fill out the FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Many colleges receive the CSS Profile from the College Board ( This form goes deeper into one’s assets. Most funding from private colleges doesn’t come from the federal government but from the college itself. I’m on the board of Scholarship America (, and it provides background on corporate scholarships.

H.O.: How much of the college selection is based on the student’s primary interest? Pre-med? Finance? English? Nursing?

Perez: The role is very different depending on the institution. If you are applying to a large university, such as the University of Southern California (USC), your major will play a significant role in the admissions process and whether you get into their engineering school, which is likely more selective than their arts and sciences. The majority of institutions in America do not admit students by majors.

H.O.: Many working-class students start their college career in community colleges. What’s your view?

Perez: I think it’s a fabulous option that more students should consider, yet they do not. It’s probably the most affordable option for students. It gives them the opportunity to test a lot of areas without having to pay high tuition. It’s good for students who aren’t college-ready, so they can dip their toes in college-ready waters. Most community colleges have articulation agreements with four-year colleges. For example, you can go to the Borough of Manhattan Community College, graduate in two years with low-cost tuition, and go directly to Smith College, Vassar College, or NYU because of the articulation agreements.

H.O.: Any special tips for Latino parents who want to help their children in their college search?

Perez: For any parent, make good use of that price calculator. It’s required by the federal government. Most colleges have resources in Spanish. If they’re an immigrant, ask the admissions office for forms in Spanish. We partner with the College Guidance Network, which involves a series of videos found on YouTube that families can watch on college admission, provided by experts, and that can be translated into other languages.

H.O.: Hispanic parents are known for wanting their children to stay close to home. Your view?

Perez: I fully understand it 100%, but I encourage families to push out of their comfort zones. There are extraordinary opportunities further away. They can grow, develop and expand. Sometimes, the school with the lower price is on the other side of the country, or the best scholarships are someplace else. Follow the money.

H.O.: What role can parents play without getting in the way?

Perez: I advise parents they should consider themselves the back seat driver. They are not driving the bus. They are advisors and supporters, but the student must go to college and live this experience. Get comfortable that they may not match the parent’s desires. This is part of the process of letting go and growing up.

H.O.: If a student feels overwhelmed by the college search, what advice would you offer?

Perez: Every single person feels overwhelmed. Work hard. Do everything you can to be intentional, but once you send in these applications, let it go.

H.O.: What role can a trusted college advisor or guidance counselor in high school play?

Perez: An extraordinary role. High school counselors are life changers. They can help students navigate the process or think about a college they would not have thought about before.

H.O.: How can a student reach out to relatives, friends, and neighbors who have attended college for help?

Perez: Very similar. It’s the role of supporting and translating the complex system we created in the U.S.: it takes a village to help a student get into college.

H.O.: What is the role of testing such as the SATs?

Perez: The advice I want to give, particularly to Hispanic parents, is that most colleges in the U.S. are now test optional. You don’t have to provide a test score, so don’t feel pressured.

H.O.: What’s the one area too many students overlook or fail to consider?

Perez: Sense of belonging. They need to spend time getting to know the campus. The students who succeed in college find a sense of belonging or connection. Have I found my people here? Do these students care about what I care about? Are they fighting for the same issues?

H.O.: Putting this all together, what are the keys to choosing the best college?

Perez: One is a reminder that the best fit will be a different answer for every student. The process is so individualized. As previously stated, students who are successful do so by belonging. They should get to know what issues are on campus. Pick up a newspaper; learn what students are writing about and follow the Instagram or TikTok accounts of the clubs you want to join. That should show you the culture of a school. 

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