May 21, 2012

The Common Data Set—Where the Pros Get Their Numbers

The Catholic University of America
Did you ever wonder where all those weighty college guides get their information?  Are you curious about how publications like US News and World Report collect data for rankings?  Would you like to go directly to the source? 

 If so, let me introduce you to the Common Data Set—a somewhat secretive by largely accessible fountain of information that anyone can tap into, if you know how.

The backstory is simple.  Several years ago, the Common Data Set (CDS) was created as a way to satisfy the endless appetite for college statistics among such organizations as the College Board, US News and World Report, Peterson’s, and Wintergreen Orchard House.

The idea was to reduce duplication of effort and meet publishers’ needs by asking colleges to complete a single survey the results of which would be compiled into a shared data base.

So rather than answer a zillion questions from many different publishers and websites, schools now fill out a lengthy standardized form each year. Data is collected, which is then used for everything from college rankings to online college search tools.

And many colleges are kind enough to publish their surveys on their websites so anyone can have access to the information. It’s a goldmine covering everything from admissions statistics to graduation rates.

Typically, you can find CDS responses by going to a college’s Institutional Research Office webpage or by using the website search function and entering “Common Data Set.” You can also Google “Common Data Set” and institution name. If the information is posted, it will appear as a link.

But not all schools post the CDS and the URL's change frequently, so don’t be alarmed if after several attempts nothing comes up. A number of colleges simply don’t want the public to have easy access to what may be unflattering statistics or information they feel could be misinterpreted. 

And keep in mind, that the folks who administer the CDS don’t audit the information for accuracy.  They rely on colleges and universities to provide accurate and truthful information, which isn’t always the case.

Also, it’s fair to say that colleges are sometimes confused about terms and definitions.  For example, the CDS provides no guidance on what is required for Grade Point Average (GPA) information—weighted or unweighted.  As a result, the reports on GPA are sometimes one and sometimes the other.  And sometimes, the question simply isn’t answered.

Finally, don’t confuse the Common Data Set with the federal government’s College Navigator.  They involve two different reporting systems and produce two different reports.  Where they intersect, College Navigator is usually the more accurate (colleges generally don’t try to fool the feds) but sometimes the CDS stats are more current and more detailed.

You can begin your explorations into the Common Data Set, by checking out a few local college webpages:

Note that the most recent data should be from 2012-11, but some schools are slow to post.

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