The Common Data Set: A Hidden Treasure for Your College Search

There are some obvious resources to get to know a college, such as college websites, mailings, college fairs, and campus tours. There are also several outside resources that are familiar to many people and can be found with a quick google search, such as U.S. News & World Reports, College Board, Petersons, Princeton Review, and Niche. But, if you’re ready for a deeper dive before making a college choice, I want to share the best, not so obvious (dare I say, hidden), place to research. Plus 3 bonus treasures at the end!

The Common Data Set

College of William & Mary – Williamsburg, VA

If you are a data geek (like me!), you may find yourself flipping from website to website trying to compare data points from each college. You may feel a bit lost. This task is tedious and can be challenging to navigate with differing website designs on each college or resource page. The Common Data Set is your answer.

If you’re not a data geek and are feeling a little lost about what to look for, I’ll help you find some of the key data points on the Common Data Set and explain how to compare your college options.


The Common Data Set started in the 1990’s as a collaborative effort between College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Reports to collect a standardized set of data points from each college. This also makes the data collection process easier on the colleges who only have to submit one large document to all three organizations. Other college search engines and resource websites will use almost identical information. So rather than flipping through every college resource website for data, the Common Data Set is your one stop shop.

The Common Data Set also limits college bias when presenting data. On a college website, each institution can put their best foot forward, showing off their best stats and suppressing what they rather you didn’t know. However, in an effort to provide equity and access, many higher education organizations have pushed colleges to publish the Common Data Set on their websites. Colleges comply to maintain ethical standards, but that doesn’t mean the Common Data Set is front and center on any college website. In other words, it’s buried in the website where prospective students and families are unlikely to find it.

The easiest way to find the Common Data Set is to google search the college name with the words “Common Data Set” (i.e. University of North Carolina Common Data Set, University of Texas Common Data Set, or Princeton University Common Data Set). If you have the time, I also challenge you to follow the website bread crumbs back to the college homepage. How far would you have to dig if you didn’t know about the Common Data Set? What if it didn’t come up in a google search?

The data fans in my audience will have a field day with this information. For my non-data people, let me point you to a few key data points.

Common Data Set Sections:
  • A. General Information
  • B. Enrollment and Persistence
  • C. First-time, First-year (Freshman) Admission
  • D. Transfer Admission
  • E. Academic Offerings and Policies
  • F. Student Life
  • G. Annual Expenses
  • H. Financial Aid
  • I. Instructional Faculty and Class Size
  • J. Degrees Conferred
  • K. Definitions

I recommend starting with section B: Enrollment and Persistence. This section starts with some basic overview data about total enrollment numbers with a breakdown of full-time/part-time, undergrad/grad students, and male/female numbers. These data points are usually accessible on college admission pages, but it will provide general insight into the size of the college community.

Graduation Rates

Rice University – Houston, TX

Tip #1: Don’t get intimidated by the small print or any confusing jargon. I’ll highlight where to look.

The first key data point in section B is Graduation Rates. The bottom right box (B21: row H) displays graduation rate.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the national average six-year graduation rate is 62%. That’s a good starting point, but I recommend comparing the colleges on your list rather than using the national average. Your list of schools are likely on a similar caliber and it’s good to understand how they compare. For example, at 4-year institutions with an open admissions policy, 34% of students graduated within 6 years. At 4-year institutions with acceptance rates of less than 25 percent, the 6-year graduation rate was 90%. I can’t stress this point enough: When investing in a college education, the worst financial outcome is not graduating. This number is a BIG deal.

If you are curious about the other 3 columns in row H:
Column 1 is the graduation rate for Federal Pell Grant Eligible students. Federal Pell Grants are awarded to lower income families who display exceptional financial need.

Column 2 is the graduation rate for recipients of a Stafford Loan, but not a Pell grant. Any full-time student who is a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident is eligible for a Stafford Loan (with a FAFSA, submitted by the deadline).

Column 3 is the graduation rate for students who did not utilize Pell Grants or Stafford Loans. The students in column 3 likely had enough scholarships and/or college savings to make a Stafford Loan unnecessary.

If you know which of these 3 financial categories you would fall into, it may be best for you to research the common data set with your financial aid status in mind. Some college graduation averages are skewed based on these financial aid categories and some do a better job improving graduation rates for lower or middle income students.

Retention Rate

Lehigh University – Bethlehem, PA

Retention rate is the percentage of first-year students who continue at that college in the following year. In other words, how many students chose to stay for a second year, rather than transferring to another college or dropping out. If your goal is to graduate on time and get the best value out of your education, this is an important number. According to a recent study from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average 6-year gradation rate of transfer-in students to the 400 Public Universities surveyed was 40.9%. The average of the 194 Private Non-Profit institutions surveyed was 34.0%. Both significantly lower than the first-year graduation rate of 62% mentioned above. Thus the financial importance of a strong retention rate. Transferring may cause a longer road to graduation, raising your total college cost.

Retention Rate can be found in section B22 of the Common Data Set, just below Graduation Rate. The chart below from the National Center for Educational Statistics displays the national retention rate at 81%. As with Graduation Rate, use this as a jumping off point, but I recommend comparing retention rates on your list of college choices rather than the national average.

Figure 1. Percentage of first-time, full-time degree-seeking undergraduate students retained at 4-year degree-granting institutions, by control of institution and percentage of applications accepted: 2017 to 2018

Merit Aid (or Tuition Discount)

Sewanee: The University of the South – Sewanee, TN

There is fascinating information in sections D-G, but if your time is limited, I want you to skip to section H of the Common Data Set: Financial Aid.

Merit Aid packages are the scholarships and grants you may receive from colleges that are not based on financial need. This may be a new concept to swallow, but I want you start thinking about merit aid as a tuition discount. That’s how the University leadership sees these scholarships; you should too. There are literally dissertations written on this topic, but let me give you a quick summary.

The tuition cost listed on the college website and brochures is a sticker price. Colleges know their top admission candidates will have many options when it comes to choosing a college, and likely their top candidates have higher tier institutions on their list. To entice those students to enroll, they will offer a tuition discount. They have worked out the numbers behind the scenes to find the right balance of enrolled students to average price (often with the help of muti-million dollar consultants). Simply put, enrolling a student at half the price is better than not enrolling a student at all.

In other cases colleges have figured out that offering any discount to their middle or even lower tier admitted students may be enough of a “feel good” scholarship to entice you to enroll. Check out Ask the Admission Counselor for an inside look at how colleges meet enrollment goals.

So how likely are you to receive a tuition discount? This takes a little arithmetic, but let me walk you through. In section H2 of the Common Data Set, you will find the total number of students entering the first-year class in row A.

In the example below, the total first-year class is 918.

Row G provides the number of students who have financial need and were also awarded a merit scholarship.

In this case, 657.

But what about the students who did not qualify or did not apply for need based aid? For this number, you’ll want to scroll down to section H2A: Row N.

In this example, 225 students who did not qualify for need-based aid, qualified for a non-need-based scholarship.

Therefore, 882 of the 918 first-year students received a tuition discount. That’s 96% of the first-year class! With these numbers you should expect a tuition discount. If you don’t get a discount, you need to question if the college is worth paying full price. Check out Why Go to College for factors to consider.

You can see why I encourage you to change your mindset to see “merit scholarships” as tuition discounts. It’s difficult to call these awards meritorious when almost everyone gets one. However, there are colleges who give out a much smaller percentage of merit scholarships and you should feel meritorious. Section H of the Common Data Set will help you determine if you are one of the chosen few with a discount or did you just get a participation trophy.

Maybe a large number of students receive some kind of discount, but what if you have been awarded one of the largest tuition discounts? Maybe earning your degree at minimal cost or no cost would make this choice worthwhile? How can you tell if you are a top tier admission candidate with a large discount? To find out if you are a top tier admission candidate in the incoming class, I’ll next have you explore section C: First-time, First-year (Freshman) Admission.

Top Tier Admission

Berry College – Mount Berry, GA

Are your grades a good indicator of where you fall in the incoming class?
I’m actually not a fan of colleges advertising their average GPA for admitted students or enrolled students. GPA scales vary from high school to high school and will often be recalculated in some way by the college, which is different from the how the next college recalculates. There is no set standard. A 3.5 GPA at X College could be a 3.8 at Y college. Trying to use your GPA compared the college’s published average GPA is a fruitless effort. Check out The Homeschool High School Transcript for more on how your homeschool GPA will be used in the admission process.

Instead, I recommend using Standardized Test scores to give you a gauge. I know, I know: most colleges have gone test optional and less weight is being placed on standardized tests in the admission process (with good reason). But (!), if you want to have some idea what kind of tuition discount you might receive and how strong of an admission candidate you are, the Standardized Test section of the Common Data Set can help.

In section C9 you will find the top 25% of SAT and ACT scores for those who submitted a standardized test with their application. In this case, more first-year students submitted ACT scores (71%) than SAT scores (49%). Preference for ACT or SAT often varies by region, so this is not surprising. ACT scores will be the stronger data set in this case, but you can see the top 25% of SAT scores for those who submitted scored 1330 or above. The top 25% of ACT submitters scored 30 or above.


Now you have an indicator to show if you are in the top tier of the incoming class with a strong tuition discount or if you are a middle of the road applicant with an average discount. You are now set with tools to compare your options.

If you want to dig in a little further into section C9, you can also check out the percentage of students in each score range and how your scores compare.

Bonus Treasures

Elon University – Elon, NC

As promised, I have 3 bonus treasures for your college search:

  1. Strategic Plan: Most colleges have a strategic plan document or landing page published on their website. This document is written with college faculty, staff, alumni, and leadership in mind, so it won’t be found in the admission section of the website. However, this is a great resource to find out: What are the college’s goals? What do they see as areas that need to be improved? What are their values? Google the college name and “strategic plan” to find this one.
  2. President’s Letter: This one is often “hiding” in plain site. It’s not usually in the Admission Section of a college website, but it can typically be found just a click or two from the homepage. A President’s Letter (or Message or Inauguration Speech) is often overlooked, but don’t you want to know: Who is leading the college you would like to attend? How long have they been with the college? What do they love about the place? What is their vision for the future of the college?
  3. The Student Newspaper: Luckily most colleges publish their student newspapers online and can now be found with a quick google search. This is another resource not easily found from a college homepage or admission page. Sometimes Admission Offices would love for you to read the student paper, sometimes not. I would often keep a copy of the student paper in my office, but I also once had an Admission Dean who asked the tour guides to move a particular issue of the printed student newspapers from the tour route so parents wouldn’t happen upon a negative article. There are often opinion pieces in these papers that can border on griping, so don’t let one article skew you too far. Pick at least a few issues to skim. Are there ongoing issues, themes, or a sense of the culture that are consistent in each issue? Those are the ideas you should hold onto.

Have a question? Suggestion for my next post? Contact me!

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