The “Van Wilder” Years Are Over: Students Weigh College Costs with DegreeCast

DegreeCast is a search engine that helps students find the key information they need about college degree or certificate programs. While companies like Princeton Review and U.S. World & News Report are known for releasing rankings and basic college data, such as available majors, Greek life details, urban-vs-rural locations, etc., some students care more about the nitty-gritty program details, such as department chair information, and credit specifics. Now with student debt rising at the rate of $3,000 per second,  cost details are entering the top criteria list as students evaluate degree programs.

While it is helpful to know whether your school is a party school, has liberal-minded individuals, or a prestigious ranking, there are many other practical details that can be hard to find. Caleb Gandara, founder of DegreeCast experienced this headache firsthand. Caleb was hoping to get a masters degree in business administration; specifically he wanted an MBA program where he could also complete his B.S. at the same time, but there was no easy way to find this without countless hours of research and Google searching. Realizing that there was a need for a better search tool, he created a specialized solution that he would have liked to have had himself, that compiles all available degree program information into one place.

DegreeCast now has seed funding from angel investors in New York and Austin, including lead investor Peter Borders who founded MediaTrust and Internet Media Lab. We caught up with Caleb to learn more about his vision for DegreeCast.

Caleb explained DegreeCast is striving to create a comprehensive, unbiased search experience for users (think that will help a degree seekers make a more informed decision during the selection of such a major lifetime investment. Students often seem to pick their college on somewhat random factors–it was the mascot that won them over, the beautiful campus landscaping, or they wanted to live in laid back environment like San Diego or an urban cultural center like New York City. Caleb said this is changing greatly as price becomes more important and student debt is on the rise. He explained:

We believe with the raising cost of education and the student debt horror stories out there, many prospective students are starting to seek out the ROI of attending a given program.  These return-on-investment focused degree seekers are looking for a trusted information resource to help guide them on their search.

Not only does DegreeCast consider tuition prices, but they also have accumulated data that considers estimated annual salary for a given degree program, and estimated costs of textbooks per year. 

Whereas Van Wilder was known for living the dream by sticking around college, more and more students are trying to finish early to save money. Caleb himself knows how this goes. He finished his high school requirements in two years, in order to capitalize on a program that let him attend college in his hometown for free for two years. He recounts:

Not only did I hack my high school education, I also hacked my higher-ed education by meticulously plotting course and credit acquisition at an array of different institutions which were transferable. This allowed me to complete a 4-year undergraduate degree at a highly-ranked private institution and only attend this expensive school for 1.4 years, saving myself and my parents over $90,000.

With  costs rising so quickly, college may become less of a place to find yourself and more of a place to get the degree you need quickly and cheaply. DegreeCasts’ search queries seem to support this. Top keyword searches are very specific, such as “aviation management woodlands, tx,” “sign language interpreter degrees in michigan,” or “cisco certified learning mn.”

WIth top schools like MIT and Stanford offering online courses, many have speculated that brick-and-mortar institutions may hold less value as education online rises. Caleb explained where he stood on the debate:

We believe online is a great supplement to traditional classroom learning environments. In some cases online will mostly likely replace the brick-and-mortar classrooms of some of today’s degree programs.  Our data collection and research suggests you can still receive a great educational experience at a low cost from many campus-only institutions, especially in the two year degree category.  Also, many of the courses that schools like MIT and Stanford are offering do not count towards a degree program.  Though they are helpful for adding to your knowledge in a particular subject, these courses will not help individuals who are seeking to complete a degree on a tight budget.

While college rankings still hold clout and the idea of attending a school ranked in the top ten still matters for many, moving forward colleges will have to continue to prove their worth as online options become more abundant thanks to Coursera and other edtech startups, and as students more carefully analyze the cost of higher education.