How do you become an educated consumer when you're checking out colleges and universities? If you ask your clients this question, the answer you hear back will probably be something like this: “Heck if I know.”

With so much at stake, it's a shame that families rarely know how to evaluate colleges. So that's why today I'm sharing with you 10 wonderful websites that can help parents and teenagers make wiser college choices.

10 Websites for Researching Colleges

In no particular order, here are the websites that I regularly use myself and/or recommend to families:

1. College Navigator

http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator

This is an enormous federal database that includes more statistics on individual colleges and universities than any other site. The graphics aren't appealing, but you can find lots of valuable information on such things as financial aid, merit aid, costs, majors, freshmen retention rates and much more.

One of the coolest features is the College Navigator's ability to share what the average net price will be for students of various incomes. At Vanderbilt University, for instance, the average price for a student whose family makes between $75,001 and $110,000 is $16,297. In contrast, the average price is $27,620 for families in the same income bracket at the University of Southern California.

2. MeritAid.com

www.meritaid.com

Most families mistakenly believe that private scholarships represent the biggest source of college money. Actually, only 4 percent of scholarships and grants come from private sources such as the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, foundations, corporations and the folks that hand out money for the best prom dress and tuxedo made out of duct tape.

Colleges and universities, however, are a much more lucrative source of college cash. While there are many scholarship search sites for private scholarships, I know of only one — MeritAid.com — that provides a handy directory of in-house scholarships from the schools themselves.

To illustrate what you can find on MeritAid.com, I typed Washington University in St. Louis into the site's search box. I counted 19 different scholarships that include awards for writing achievement, art ability, business students, engineering majors, transfer students and more.

3. College Board

www.collegeboard.org

I consult this website when I want a quick snapshot of a college including such things as its acceptance rate, the school's size and the gender breakdown of its students. What I particularly like are the Financial Aid & Cost statistics of any school. You can access these stats by typing in the name of an institution in the home page's College Search box.

4. COLLEGEdata

www.collegedata.com

This is another great site that serves up lots of statistics on colleges. To access this wealth of information, type in the name of any school in the College Match search box. Once you land on a school's profile, you will discover, for instance, the admission factors that a school considers very important, as well as those not considered at all.

5. College InSight

http://college-insight.org/

You'll discover here some of the same statistics that you'll find on the College Board and CollegeData, but one of the things that I love about College InSight is that you can use the site to compare different schools simultaneously.

6. & 7. Zinch and Cappex

www.Zinch.com and www.Cappex.com

These websites are online matchmakers that have become extremely popular with universities and teenagers. On Zinch and Cappex, students create their own profiles that include information about themselves, as well as the type of schools that they'd like to attend. Schools use the sites to promote themselves and to find students who might represent great matches.

8. College Week Live

www.collegeweeklive.com/

Cash-strapped schools like the University of California campuses are increasingly holding virtual college fairs through College Week Live, which bills itself as the world's largest online college fair. You can attend these virtual college fairs and ask admission officers questions just as you would at a traditional college fair.

9. Unigo

www.Unigo.com

The site contains more than 50,000 student reviews of colleges and universities. Visit Unigo and you are more likely to get an unvarnished look at an institution. One of the drawbacks, however, is that while there are many reviews of popular schools, others have few to none. Northwestern University, for example, has 149 reviews, but Beloit College (my son's school) has only one review.

10. College Results Online

www.collegeresults.org

When families are contemplating college costs, they assume their children will graduate in four years. Most students, however, need five or six years to graduate. I have yet to bump into parents who find that acceptable.

Don't expect schools to share their crummy four-year grad stats with you. You can uncover the rates for any college, however, by visiting College Results Online. You can find the four, five- and six-year grad rates of any individual school. Even better, you can compare the grad rates of individual schools with their peer institutions. The website will generate these peer lists automatically.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is a college consultant, author and speaker. She writes three college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch, U.S. News & World Report and TheCollegeSolutionBlog.com.