A new Google tool aims to bring 'in-depth analysis' to the college search

An employee passes the Google logo.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Students today use Google to do their homework, connect with peers and teachers and apply to college. Now, more college-bound students may turn to the search engine for decision-making help. 

In 2018, the search giant launched a college search feature that gives students information about four-year universities, including acceptance rates, costs and graduation rates. This year, Google expanded the feature to include two-year colleges, associate programs and certificate programs, reflecting the changing ways Americans are pursuing degrees.

Today, roughly 35% of all college students, about 6 million people, are enrolled in two-year institutions like community colleges, rather than traditional four-year colleges.

While workers with associate's degrees are typically out-earned by workers with higher educational attainment, earning a two-year degree in a high-demand field can be a low-cost way for workers to continue their education and increase their potential earnings. As a result, the number of students earning an associate's degree each year has risen from 579,000 in 2001 to nearly 1 million in 2018, an increase of about 74%.

Attendance at these kinds of programs has increased also because they are typically "open-access," meaning they accept most, or all, qualified students.

Proponents of these kinds of open-access programs emphasize that they provide a low-cost education to students who might not have the opportunity to attend more exclusive four-year schools and that they enroll high percentages of students of color and low-income students.

But graduation rates are significantly lower at two-year programs than they are at four-year programs. According to the Department of Education, 31.6% of students at two-year institutions graduate within four years, compared to over 40% at four-year institutions.

According to The Brookings Institution, fewer than 40% of community college students earn a certificate or degree within six years of enrollment; other studies report that 26% of community college students earn an associate's or bachelor's degree after six years. The Department of Education estimates that roughly 60% of college students at four-year schools graduate within this time. Graduation rates are even lower at for-profit universities.

Sitaram Iyer, an engineer at Google, hopes that the new search feature can help students find high-quality two-year programs. He and his team started developing the feature by consulting with education researchers.

"It is a very challenging journey that students go through," he tells CNBC Make It. "I personally underestimated how hard it is."

Google's research found that students of two-year programs typically search, apply and attend schools primarily based on geography, and may be missing better options. "The college-seeking journey for students as they look into two-year colleges is substantially different from how they think about four-year colleges," Iyer says. "Most students go locally for college, but they haven't done an in-depth analysis into what's out there."

By providing information about what credits schools offer, graduation rates and total costs based on public information from the Department of Education's College Scorecard and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Iyer and his team hope to help students make smart decisions about where they choose to pursue a degree — including at two-year schools.

"My belief is that there's much more to be gained from students better understanding what's out there," says Iyer.

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss:

Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money