Common Data Set Ultimate Guide: Use it to Find the Right College

Common Data Set

Common Data Set Ultimate Guide: Use it to Find the Right College

Published July 12, 2023 | Last Updated June 19th, 2024 at 01:32 pm

Common Data Set

With about 4,000 U.S. colleges to choose from, finding the right college at the price right is no easy task. The Common Data Set provides standardized information about each college that may help you in the process. From financial aid stats to average GPA, here’s what you can expect from the data and how to put it to work for your family. 

What is the Common Data Set?

The Common Data Set is a cooperative initiative among the College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report, as well as colleges and higher education data providers. They designed it to ensure that data shared is high-quality and accurate, so that the people accessing it can compare data across uniform fields and measurements. 

What does this mean? The data you look at from the Common Data Set (CDS) publishers will have a uniform appearance. You can compare the data from one school directly with data from the other, as long as that data was collected according to CDS standards. It also reduces the workload on college administrators by providing centralized information that everyone can access. 

The Common Data Set’s data collection process captures some information with uniform definitions across the board that isn’t available from the other major college resource: the government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Set (IPEDS), part of the U.S. Department of Education. 

How the Common Data Set Began 

The Common Data Set started when a group of publishers, including Peterson’s, the College Board, and U.S. News & World Report, decided there was a need to provide accurate and timely data to families researching schools. The CDS is a result of their efforts working together and with colleges and other data providers. 

How the Common Data Set Information is Collected 

The group participating in CDS offers the same core questions for every school to answer, allowing accurate comparison between institutions. Or colleges and data providers sometimes download the questionnaire.

What’s Included in the Common Data Set? 

The Common Data Set contains several sections, each with detailed information about aspects of a school. They include the following: 

Section A: General Information. This includes the type of school and what degrees it offers.

Section B: Enrollment and Persistence. Here, you’ll find information on the percentage of students in various demographics who go on to earn degrees.

Section C: First-Time, First-Year Admission. Full of information about freshman students, this section can help prospective applicants compare important factors such as class rank, Grade Point Average (GPA), and extracurriculars in the admissions process. 

Section D: Transfer Admission. Students who have transferred in from another school will have their information listed here, including timing, requirements, and admissions rate. 

Section E: Academic Offerings and Policies. This short section includes information on the types of special programs offered by the school, including study abroad, distance learning, or honors college. It also includes the program requirements needed to get a degree, such as history, humanities, math, or a foreign language.

Section F: Student Life. You’ll find housing options, activities offered by the school, and a breakdown of the student body demographics, including age and residency.

Section G: Annual Expense. Just as you’d expect, this section details how much it costs to attend each year, including separate figures for tuition, room and board, and required student fees. 

Section H: Financial Aid. Filled with all kinds of financial data, this section includes the following: 

  • How much students receive
  • Student loans and debt
  • Requirements for applying for and receiving aid
  • Percentage of financial need met
  • Average institutional need-based scholarships or grants
  • Average need-based loan
  • Average non-need-based scholarships or grants for affluent students who don’t require need-based financial aid
  • The number of students who receive need-based or merit aid
  • Aid to foreign students

This information can be very helpful as you see what schools are the most generous with financial aid packages. When combined with the information about how your student compares to the current freshman class, you can get an idea of how much aid you might receive.

Common Data Set Format

Section AGeneral Information*Type of school
*Degree Programs Offered
Section BEnrollment and Persistence*% of students who get degrees
Section C1st-Time, 1st-Year AdmissionIncoming freshman:
*Class rank
Section DTransfer Admission*Timing
*Admissions rate

Section EAcademic Offerings and Policies*Study abroad
*Distance learning
*Honors college
*Other special programs
Section FStudent Life*Housing options
*Student demographics
Section GAnnual ExpenseCost for:
*Student fees
Section HFinancial Aid*How much students receive
*Student loans and debt
*Requirements for aid
*Percentage of financial need met
*Average institutional aid
*Average need-based loan
*Average non-need-based aid
*Number of students with aid
*Aid to foreign students

How to Find the Common Data Set Questionnaire and Data

You can find the Common Data Set questionnaire on the Common Data Set website and download it in various formats, such as PDF, Word, or Excel spreadsheet.   

To get the actual data provided by the schools, you can go to Google and input a college’s name paired with “common data set.” Or you can use a college data and search tool like Road2College’s R2C Insights. With it, you can look up multiple colleges, or characteristics you’re most interested in. This will help you compare colleges and build your list of potential fits.

Common Data Set Links for Top Colleges 

Road2College has collected the Common Data Set information for top schools, including the following: 

How Can the Common Data Set Help You Choose a School? 

The information provided through the Common Data Set can build a great foundation for getting to know a school and helping your student decide if it’s worth pursuing further. In fact, publications like U.S. News & World Report do their large rankings based on the CDS, along with proprietary data gained from their own surveys. 

Of course, they may not interpret things the way you do, but it gives you a good start. And if  your child has already narrowed down their choices, comparing the CDS from each school can be informative. Here’s how to get started:

Simply Google “CDS” or “common data set” and the school name to find the data. Not all schools publish their CDS information, but a vast majority do. 

Steps to Use Road2College’s R2C Insights to Build Your College List

If you’re building a college list, find out which ones offer the  most generous merit aid with our R2C Insights tool. R2C Insights gathers the most useful information from the Common Data Set and allows you and your family to quickly make comparisons across data points from multiple schools. 

You do not need to do anything special if you’re using R2C Insights for the first time, but we recommend these steps:

  1. Create a free account and set up your student profile.
  2. Do a search of colleges based on a specific characteristic, such as whether they offer merit aid or if standardized testing is required. 
  3. To see more than the sample list provided, upgrade to a paid account.

Try a broad search of colleges, especially if you are looking for colleges that can offer their student merit. By casting a wide net, such as all colleges where student GPA and test scores are at or above a college’s 75th percentile, you can see more schools. Then, sort by the average merit amount to narrow down schools that offer the most aid.  

R2C Insights is most helpful in helping families do a “reverse look-up” where they can enter their student’s academic stats and any requirements for location, school size, and major. Once entered, R2C Insights provides a list of schools that meet that requirement and where the student has a likelihood of also receiving merit scholarships. 

Whether you are finding out the affordability of a given list of programs, your child’s chances at admission, or simply figuring out if the college graduates most of its students in four years, R2C Insights can greatly simplify the process.  

Without R2C Insights, a family needs to find and review each college’s CDS on their own, but you wouldn’t be able to filter, sort, and compare colleges as quickly.

R2C Insights Road2College Ultimate tool to find merit scholarships and compare colleges
Try R2C Insights for FREE

What the Common Data Set Can’t Do 

The Common Data Set is a useful tool for discovering and comparing data, but it has its shortcomings. Since you can’t learn everything about a college from numbers alone, the CDS isn’t a replacement for visiting in person, interviewing, or talking to current students about their experiences. Factors like sports, the quality of the dorms, and even the amount of green space on campus can’t be learned just from the CDS.

How Accurate is the Common Data Set?

The Common Data Set responses are only as accurate as the data provided by the school. Not all schools report all their data, and others may not update it as often as others. It’s an honor system, so there’s no way to know for certain that the data is accurate.

Because the data changes regularly, accuracy may depend on when you check it during the year. For the most up-to-date Common Data Set information, consider using the R2C Insights Tool, which updates regularly based on new Common Data Set releases. 

How Publications Use the Common Data Set in College Rankings

Many publications, such as the U.S. News and World Report college rankings guides, use CDS to create lists of schools that students may want to easily compare before applying to. 

Recently, many prestigious schools, including Harvard Medical School, joined to stop providing information to the news outlet. They had concerns over how the data is being used to inform future students of what they offered. With the data only showing a “snapshot” of the schools graduation rates, career earnings, and admission rates, families may assume wrong things about how the school stacks up to the competition. 

Key Factors to Explore in Addition to the Data 

Because the Common Data Set is just one source of information on a school, don’t dismiss other methods of research. Here are the ways you can get additional information before a student decides on a school: 

  • In-person college tours, including private tours
  • Virtual tours, webinars, and Zoom meetings
  • Joining and participating in the Paying for College 101 Facebook group
  • Talking to school alumni from the program your student is interested in 

Remember, the Common Data Set, while valuable, provides a lot of data but doesn’t tell the whole story. With a tool like R2C Insights, and a willingness to do other research, you can get a good picture of what a school offers your student. 


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

👉 Looking for expert help on the road to college? See our Preferred Partner List!

Other Articles You Might Like:

Merit Scholarships Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List and Search Tool

The Price You Pay for College: Why It’s So Difficult to Predict Merit Scholarships

The Common Black College Application Lowers Costs and Stress




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