College Common Data Sets: The Numbers that Tell the Real Story

Standards in U.S. college admissions is a bit of an oxymoron. Colleges have their own application requirements, essays, deadlines, factors for evaluating students, institutional needs, academic offerings, and financial aid policies. It’s often difficult to find consistency and answers to frequently asked questions. Even a college website, part repository of facts and information, part marketing tool, often falls short when it comes to transparency in the admission process. Young people applying to colleges are often challenged, trying to find answers to some basic but critical questions like, is it important that I demonstrate interest in the college? Or what’s the likelihood that 100% of my financial need will be met or that I’ll receive merit-based aid? Fortunately, this type of information is readily available for many colleges. You just have to know where to look. 

The Common Data Set (CDS), was created as part of a 2002 initiative by the College Board, Peterson’s and U.S. News & World Report to standardize and improve college data transparency.  Anyone with internet access can find and compare, among other things, enrollment data, admission statistics, waitlist practices, testing policies, academic requirements, cost of attendance, typical class size and financial aid generosity.

Publishing a Common Data Set is purely voluntary. Not all colleges produce one. But for the many schools that do, the form’s A through J sections include a wealth of information in one easy to decipher standardized format. Information on a school’s most current CDS is usually from the prior academic year, and like any investment disclaimer, past performance (or in this case, data) does not predict future results. Nonetheless, it’s a useful starting point to find answers to questions that often arise for students during their college admission process.

You don’t need to relish combing through data for hidden significance in order to find Common Data Sets useful.  I have often relied on a college’s CDS to learn such things as whether a school cares about potential applicants demonstrating interest. I go right to Section C: First-Time, First Year Admissions, and look for C7.  This handy chart lists the many factors a college considers in admissions and their relative significance. It’s how I know, for example, that Lehigh University considers “Level of Applicant’s Interest” Important. For my students who will likely apply, I encourage them to register for the virtual tours and information sessions on the college’s website, or plan a visit now that limited campus tours have resumed. The motivation should be, first and foremost, to learn about the college in order to determine whether it’s the right fit.

With the cost of college already steep and still on the rise, families increasingly seek ways to evaluate their likelihood of receiving some type of financial assistance, either need-based or merit aid. The CDS is the first place I will look. Nearly all colleges offer need-based aid to families that qualify and have completed the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile. But that doesn’t mean a student’s demonstrated need will be met, a practice referred to as ‘gapping.’  To find out whether a college meets 100% of demonstrated need for all students, I go to the H2 chart, specifically line I. Yet if you don’t qualify but still need financial help to make college affordable, Section H2A on the Common Data Set is the place to look. It shows not only how many students received a merit award but also the average scholarship amount.  Families can see whether merit grants are abundant or distributed to a select few. While there is no guarantee of financial assistance, families can use Common Data Sets to get a sense for what colleges have offered in prior years and make educated assumptions about their own child’s likelihood of receiving assistance. 

With the May 1 (May 3 for many this year) National College Decision Day now past, many waitlisted students are closely watching for signs of movement, holding hope of ultimate acceptance to a top choice college. What will happen this year is anyone’s guess, though speculation is that lists are long and more students than usual are sitting in college admissions purgatory. Even prior to Covid-19, colleges increasingly employed waitlists as a tool to manage class size and yield (the ratio of student who enroll to those accepted). While waitlist activity can vary considerably from year to year, Section C2 on the Common Data Set can be a useful tool to assess the likelihood of ultimately being admitted.  At Dartmouth College last year, 95 of the 1945 students who elected to stay on the waitlist were granted a place in the class. 5% odds can be disheartening, especially since this low percentage is more the norm than exception at the more selective universities.  It’s a reminder to commit in heart and mind elsewhere.

Data can be powerful, not just for finding answers and making decisions. It can also serve as a reality check.  Much of the information offered in Common Data Sets is available through other resources, but nowhere else is it gathered on one easy-to-read form. Should you decide to take a look at a few, the best way to find a college’s most current CDS is to do an internet search for the college’s name followed by ‘common data set,’ or go to the college’s website itself. Having said that, good luck navigating a school’s website to find it. Fortunately, they all have a search function.

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