The federal government recently stepped up to help older teens with one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives: choosing the right college. Enter the College Scorecard from the Department of Education. “You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans,” President Barack Obama said in a radio address.

In addition to helping students figure out costs, debt and potential earnings, students can enter a college name and sort by categories like location, size and degrees offered. The site is receiving rave reviews as the latest advancement in helping students choose the right college and get the most bang for their tuition buck.

For many students, financial aid and student loans play a major role in the decision, especially since recent statistics from the College Board show tuition costs continue to rise at an alarming rate. And it’s not just the cost of tuition — your future debt and earnings are at stake, too. “More than half of students at 347 colleges and vocational schools defaulted on their loans or failed to pay down even a single dollar of their debt after seven years,” according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal data.

Although you don’t necessarily need a college education to have a successful career, the Department of Education estimates that a college graduate will earn $1 million more on average over his lifetime when compared to someone with only a high school diploma.

Ending up at the wrong school will waste your time — and precious tuition dollars. In addition to using the College Scorecard, following these steps can help you make a better decision.

Related: How Much Money Should I Save For College?

Compare and contrast

Dig into the differences between colleges you like, thinking about factors other than money. In addition to the College Scorecard, try a search tool like the College Navigator by the National Center for Education Statistics. The tool allows you to compare schools, save your sessions and even export your results into a spreadsheet.

Look at the school's accreditation status, the admission requirements and the majors it offers. Also look at graduation rates, and the teacher to student ratio (do you learn better with more personal attention, or are you okay in freshman classes that take place in an auditorium?). You might also consider what career services the school offers.

Related: Need Student Loan Forgiveness? Try These Programs

Be self-centered

Your likes and dislikes also will help shape the decision. The Department of Education suggests analyzing your personal preferences and getting feedback from people closest to you. Some things to consider:

  • Location. Do I like urban or rural areas? Should I stay close to home? Do I want to go overseas? What about an online university?
  • Size. Do I want to attend a small, medium or large school? Do I want small classes or large ones?
  • Affiliations. Would I prefer a public or private university? Religious or secular? Single-sex or co-ed?
  • Social life. Am I interested in fraternities and sororities? What kinds of groups and activities does the school offer?
  • Housing. Do I want to live on campus or commute? How do I feel about dorms or off-campus apartments?
  • Culture. What type of environment in regard to student behavior, rules and security will make me comfortable? Is the school conservative or progressive?

Understanding what’s important to you will make searching for the right college easier.

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Check out the contenders

Once you narrow your list to a handful of possibilities, it’s time to check out each college in person, if you can. (If you can’t, the school’s website may have a virtual tour that allows you to see the school and learn about campus life.)

Try to visit while classes are in session so you can attend one in your intended major. Talk to current students and gauge their impressions of the school. Also bring a list of questions to ask your tour guide.

Related: Handling the Stress of College Rejection Letters

Brian Fourman is a stay-at-home dad who writes about home safety and personal finance.