Jun 5, 2013

The Common Data Set Part 2: Discovering a Treasure Chest of College Information

The tricky part is finding where the Common Data Set (CDS) is posted.  But once you locate the CDS
webpage for a particular college or university, you’ll have the key to unlocking a treasure chest filled with valuable information.

And it’s provided free of charge, without annoying strings or registration requirements.

AND, the data is frequently more current and complete than what’s posted on glitzier college search websites or printed in the mega college guides. 

Check this out:  the 2013 College Board College Handbook was printed in June, 2012 and contains data provided to the CDS for the 2011-12 academic year.  The 2014 edition is due out next month.

But many colleges have already posted 2012-13 CDS responses, and they are readily accessible online.  So why not get a jump on the 2014 Handbook by going directly to the source? 

Also, not every website or guide uses every morsel of information available through the CDS.  Not all tell you about wait lists or transfers.  But if you know where to look, it’s usually there. 

Not only that, but you can research trends by looking at CDS data over a series of years.  Unless you’ve kept all those bulky guides or filed away printouts over the years, no other source will so easily lend itself to historical research on wait lists, freshman retention, or graduation rates.

Keep in mind, however, that the CDS is a voluntary project in which participating colleges “self-report” information with little or no oversight. 

Sadly, there have been instances of malfeasance where colleges attempt to rig information to look better or improve their status on the US News rankings.  And not every college chooses to answer every question.

You can always double check information on the College Navigator website. But even then, the data is only as good as what colleges are willing or able to provide, and it sometimes lags the most recent Common Data Set.

To kick start your college search, here is a tour of some basic Common Data Set tools:
  1. Enrollment.  Questions B1 and B2 will tell you the size of the institution as well as provide you with a breakdown of what the campus community looks like in terms of race and ethnicity.

  2. Graduation Rates. Questions B4 through B11 address “persistence” or what percent of students graduated within a specified timeframe. You can easily compute 4-year graduation rates by dividing B7 (completions within four years) by B6 (the total class size).  For example, the University of Virginia graduated 86.5 percent of the class beginning in 2005, within four years.  Question B11 simply states the 6-year graduation rate, which for UVa stands at 93 percent.

  3. Freshman Retention.  Question B22 provides retention rate based on the date an institution calculates its “official” enrollment—a number subject to some manipulation depending on who is counting and on what day.

  4.  Admits.  Using the answers to C1, you can get male/female as well as overall admit rates (selectivity) by dividing the number of admitted students by the number of applicants.  This can extremely interesting when trying to determine the level of admissions difficulty for men vs. women. For example, in the fall of 2012, the College of William & Mary admitted 41 percent of its male applicants but only 27 percent of the females who applied.

  5. Yield.  Once again using the responses to C1, yield may be computed by dividing the total number of enrolled students by the number admitted.  Because of the sensitivity and importance of this number in college rankings, the definitions of “admitted” and “enrolled” can be different at different institutions. 

  6.  Wait list.  The answers to C2 speak to the use of the wait list and what the likelihood is of admission from the wait list.  In the spring of 2012, Johns Hopkins offered 2730 students places on the wait list for a class totaling 1330.  Of those, 2,442 (or most students) accepted spots on the list.  From that group, one was admitted.

  7. Other Admissions Factors.  C7 outlines the relative importance of academic and nonacademic factors in admissions decisions.  This may be a good place to see if interviews are available and how important they may be.  George Washington University views the interview as “important,” while Johns Hopkins and William & Mary simply note that the interview is “considered.”

  8. GPA.  C12 provides the average high school GPA of enrolled freshmen.  Because it’s hard to know if the number is weighted, unweighted or recomputed, the GPA response is left out of many college guides.  It’s also a question that’s frequently left blank by colleges.

  9. Transfers.  D2 indicates how many transfer applications were received, how many students were admitted, and how many eventually enrolled.  Other basic information on the transfer process includes the terms during which transfers may enroll (D3), minimum credit units required for transfer (D4), the need for an interview (D5), and a minimum college grade point average (D7).

  10. Residency. Under the “Student Life” section (F1), you can see the percent (and number) of out-of-state students (excluding international students) enrolled.  Both the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland enrolled about 31 percent of out-of-state freshmen in the fall of 2012, while Johns Hopkins enrolled 90 percent from out-of-state.

  11. Annual Expenses.  Questions G0 through G6 lay out undergraduate tuition, fees and room and board.  More current data for the coming year would probably be found on an individual school website and if you’re interested, G0 gives a direct link to an institution’s net price calculator.

  12. Financial Aid.  The H section is devoted to financial aid, including scholarships/grants and "self-help" awards.  Athletic “awards” are broken down separately in H1. And for international students, H6 answers the question of whether or not institutional aid is available to "nonresident aliens."

  13. Percent of Need.  Question H2i provides the percent of need a college claims was met for students awarded any need-based aid.  For the 2012-13 reporting period, Johns Hopkins met 99.1 percent of need for incoming full time freshmen and 99.7 percent overall.  Towson met 57 percent of need for freshmen; the University of Maryland met 66 percent of need; UVa met 98.5 percent of need; and American declined to answer the question.

  14. Faculty and Class Size.  Question I1 through I3 cover the range of territory relating to student-to-faculty ratio and average undergraduate class size.  This is a complicated area full of definitional issues, but since colleges make a point of bragging about how small their classes are, you may want to take a look.
If this kind of analysis gives you a headache, feel free to use comprehensive college search websites and guide books that aggregate and message the data into more user-friendly formats. 

But if you can’t wait until mid-summer and like the idea of going directly to the source, visit the CDS webpages for colleges you are researching.

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