May 23, 2012

Unlocking the Treasures of the Common Data Set

Georgetown recently posted its Common Data Set  for the first time.

The tricky part is finding where it’s posted.  But once you locate the Common Data Set (CDS) for a particular college or university, you’ll have the key to unlocking a treasure trove of valuable information.
And it’s often more current and complete than what’s posted on glitzier college search websites or printed in the mega college guides. 
For example, the 2012 College Board College Handbook  was printed in June, 2011 and contains data provided to the CDS for the 2010-11 academic year.  The 2013 edition is due out next month.
But most colleges have already posted CDS responses for 2011-12, and they are readily accessible online.  So why not get a jump on the 2013 Handbook by going directly to the source? 
Also, not every website or guide uses every morsel of information available through the CDS.  Few will tell you about wait lists or transfers.  But if you know where to look, it’s usually all there. 
And not only that, 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. 
While unusual, there have been instances of malfeasance where colleges attempt to rig information to look better or improve their status on the USNWR 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.
So for the extra motivated, here are a few of the treasures you can unlock with creative use of the Common Data Set: 
  • Graduation Rates.  For recent graduating classes, you can compute 4-year graduation rates by dividing B7 (completions in four years or less) by B6 (total class size).  Using this computation, Georgetown graduated 89 percent of the class beginning in 2004 within four years.  Question B11 saves you the math and simply states the 6-year graduation rate, which for Georgetown was 94 percent for the same class.

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

  •  Admit Rate (Selectivity).  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.  If you’re really tricky, you can see the relative percentages of male and female admits.  For example, the College of William & Mary admitted 44 percent of its male applicants for fall of 2011, but only 29 percent of the females.

  • Yield.  Once again using C1, the yield is computed by dividing the total number of enrolled students by the number admitted.  Note that because of the sensitivity and importance of this number, the definitions of “admitted” and “enrolled” are often subject to debate. 

  •  Wait list.  The answers to C2 will speak volumes about a school’s use of the wait list and what the likelihood is of admission from the wait list.  For example, in 2011, Johns Hopkins offered 2725 students places on the wait list for a class of 1279.  Of those, 2364 (or most) accepted spots on the list.  From that group, 19 were admitted.

  • Interview.  C7 suggests the relative importance of academic and nonacademic factors in admission.  This is a good place to see if interviews are available and how generally important they are.  Georgetown considers the interview “important,” while Johns Hopkins and William & Mary simply “consider” the interview.

  • Average GPA.  C12 provides the average high school GPA of all enrolled freshmen.  Because it’s hard to know if the number is weighted, recomputed, and/or representative of all grades submitted, the GPA response is left out of many college guides.  And for some of those same reasons, it’s a question that’s frequently left blank by colleges.

  • Transfer.  D2 shows how many transfer applications were received, how many students were admitted, and how many eventually enrolled.  Other basic information on the transfer process is also made available such as 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).

  • Residency. Under the “Student Life” section (F1), you can see the percent (and number) of out-of-state students (excluding international students) enrolled.  Both Towson and James Madison enrolled about 18 percent of out-of-state freshmen in the fall of 2011, while Johns Hopkins enrolled 90 percent from out-of-state.
  • Financial Aid.  The entire H section is devoted to financial aid, including scholarships/grants and "self-help" awards.  Interestingly, athletic “awards” are broken down separately in H1. And H6 answers the question of whether or not institutional aid is available to "nonresident aliens."

  • Percent of Need.  In H2i, you can find what percent of need the college claims was met for students awarded any need-based aid.  For Johns Hopkins, that amount would be 99 percent for freshmen and 99.7 percent overall, while Georgetown meets 100% of need.  Towson met 60 percent of need for full time freshmen, and American declined to answer the question.
There’s certainly an argument for letting the CDS gurus 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, check out the Common Data Set.
This is the second of a two-part series.

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