Have you ever wondered where all the information comes from when you research and compare colleges? Or how rankings, like the U.S. News & World Report feature, are done? The information for these rankings and research pieces comes from statistics gathered in a database called the Common Data Set (CDS.)
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.
Here’s what the Common Data Set includes, and what you can learn from the research.
How the Common Data Set Began
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.
It reduces the workload on college administrators as well, by providing centralized information that everyone can access. The group sends out the same core questions to every school, allowing accurate comparison between institutions. You can see the most recent CDS survey results here.
The complete list of all responses is not available to the public, but many colleges publish their CDS answers on their school website.
What’s Included in the Common Data Set?
There’s a lot you can learn from looking at a school’s CDS results.
How Your Student Stacks Up
(a) General Information: Section A includes general information about the type of school and what degrees it offers.
(b) Enrollment and Persistence: Section B gives information on the percentage of students in various demographics who go on to earn degrees.
(c) First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission: For prospective applicants, families can discover the importance of factors such as class rank, Grade Point Average (GPA), and extracurriculars in the admissions process in section C, while section D gives information on transfers.
(d) Transfer Admission: Applicant and admissions statistics for students transferring to this college, including timing, requirements, and admissions rate.
You can also find a profile of the current freshman class, including average SAT and ACT scores, class rank, and high school GPA.
This can help you understand if your student will be a good fit at that school, and how likely they might be to receive merit aid.
Financial Award Information
Within the pages of the Common Data Set for each school, you can uncover the average financial aid awards and what percentage of those are loans vs. grants in section H.
(h) Financial Aid: What types of aid are available, how much students receive, student loans and debt, and the requirements for applying for and receiving aid.
Other financial award information available includes:
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 work to uncover 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 you might receive.
Finally, your child might enjoy discovering what student life options are available at different schools, and what living expenses you can expect. In sections F and G, at the end of the CDS, this information will be shared.
(f) Student Life: Activity and housing options, as well as a breakdown of the student body by age, residency, and other factors.
(g) Annual Expenses: How much it costs to attend each year, including figures for tuition, room and board, and required fees.
You can discover the percentage of students in Greek life, the percentage of students from out of state, the activities offered, and what types of housing is available at the school. You also get a breakdown of fees, room, and board.
What the Common Data Set Can’t Do
This data, as you can imagine, is all incredibly helpful. However, the CDS is still just a tool; that means it has shortcomings. The most obvious of which is that it’s incredibly heavy on quantitative data, but light on data that can’t be described with numbers. Factors like sports, the quality of the dorms, and even the amount of green space on campus can’t be learned from the CDS alone.
Additionally, the CDS is not fully completed by many colleges, so there may be holes in the data. In those instances where all relevant information is not present, that can reduce the usefulness of the tool.
How Can the Common Data Set Help You Choose a School?
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. If your child has already narrowed down their choices, though, comparing the CDS from each school can be informative.
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.
If you’re building a college list find out which ones are most generous with our College Insights tool. College Insights not only gathers the most useful information from the Common Data Set, but it also allows you and your family to quickly make comparisons across data points from multiple schools.
College 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, College 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, College Insights can greatly simplify the process.
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