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What is the Common Data Set for Colleges?

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Getting started with the college application process means gathering a great deal of information about the colleges you’re considering. Factors like the size of the school, the cost of attendance, and the competitiveness of the admissions process are important to consider as you narrow down your list of schools and decide where to apply.


Gathering all these facts can take a lot of work. While colleges typically present the most important information up front on their websites and in other admissions materials, there are thousands of colleges out there, each with its own approach. One school might present its enrollment numbers up front, while another might provide them buried in a lengthy document that’s difficult to access.


This is where the Common Data Set, or CDS, comes in. The CDS compiles some of the most important facts and figures about a college in a standardized format that all participating schools share. It allows you to easily look up certain pieces of information, helps you compare colleges on particular points, and even provides some detailed demographic breakdowns of admissions and enrollment statistics for those who are interested.


While the CDS doesn’t cover everything you’ll need to learn about a college, it’s an excellent tool for obtaining the basic facts, and one you should keep in mind as you begin researching colleges. Here’s what the CDS covers—and doesn’t cover—and what you can do with that information.



Introducing the Common Data Set

The CDS is the brainchild of the Common Data Set Initiative, or CDI, which brings together college representatives who provide data and the publishers who disseminate it. With guidance from the US Department of Education, these interested parties have come up with a standardized way for colleges to self-report data and ensure that publications are accurate and up-to-date.


The CDI stresses that the CDS is intended as “a set of standards and definitions of data items rather than a survey instrument or set of data represented in a database.” In other words, it’s not just about what data a college reports, but also how they choose to report it. When all participating colleges report their data in the same way, it’s easier for students and those assisting them to research and compare those schools.


Some colleges choose to publish their CDS responses directly; for instance, you can find Ohio State University’s 2015-2016 CDS data on the OSU website. However, publishers like US News and World Reports or the College Board also use the CDS as a guideline for creating their own customized surveys and tools, which may be more detailed and incorporate additional information and analysis.


The standard CDS format, which you can access here, is divided into the following ten sections, titled with the letters A through J. Below, we’ll briefly go over what each section contains.


(a) General Information: The type of college—private or public, single-gender or co-ed, degrees offered, and so on—and the college’s contact information.


(b) Enrollment and Persistence: The number of students, broken down by various demographic categories, and how many of those students go on to complete their degrees.


(c) First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission: Applicant and admissions statistics that cover how many people applied, were accepted, and enrolled, as well as basic facts about the school’s admissions procedures, requirements, and standards.


(d) Transfer Admission: Applicant and admissions statistics for students transferring to this college, including timing, requirements, and admissions rate.


(e) Academic Offerings and Policies: Very brief checklist of the school’s special academic programs (such as an honors program or study abroad) as well as academic breadth required for graduation.


(f) Student Life: Activity and housing options, as well as a breakdown of the student body by age, residency, and other factors.


(g) Annual Expenses: How much it costs to attend each year, including figures for tuition, room and board, and required fees.


(h) Financial Aid: What types of aid are available, how much students receive, student loans and debt, and the requirements for applying for and receiving aid.


(i) Instructional Faculty and Class Size: The number of instructors (full- and part-time) and their characteristics, the size of the average class, and the overall ratio of students to faculty members.


(j) Disciplinary Areas of Degrees Conferred: The most popular areas of study or majors, based on how many students end up graduating in each one.


As you consider these categories, keep in mind that not every college chooses (or is able) to answer every question in the CDS. Specific publishers or survey providers can also choose to add or customize questions when creating their own data-gathering tools.


If you look at the standard CDS format, you’ll see that the answers they’re seeking are mostly very brief—often only numbers or checked-off boxes. Many sources, like the US News and World Report rankings, also present the data they’ve collected in a descriptive format or with additional analysis that they’ve conducted outside the CDS structure. When this happens, it can bring in the source’s own perspectives and opinions about higher education.

What’s Not Included in the Common Data Set?

While the CDS is an important tool for college research, and likely one you’ll refer back to many times over the course of the application process, it can’t cover everything. If you’re seriously considering applying to or attending a particular college, there are some factors you’ll have to research in other ways.


First of all, much of the information contained in the CDS is quantitative data rather than qualitative. When you’re looking for specific numbers, facts, and figures about topics such as enrollment, acceptance rates, or cost, the CDS gives you that information directly. It gets the point across with minimal additional detail, description, or interpretation. 


What you won’t find in the CDS are in-depth descriptions and personal perspectives regarding what it’s actually like to be a student at a particular college. The more qualitative aspects of a college that these perspectives reveal can be very important in determining whether that school is the right fit for you.


To learn about things like the campus culture, the school’s philosophy of education, or the day-to-day student experience, you’ll have to do some additional digging. You’ll also want to consider the opinions of people you trust, who can tell you more than the bare facts reveal. Here are a few approaches that can help you gather the information you won’t find in the CDS.


Visit the campus in person. Take tours, attend information sessions, and talk to representatives. Don’t forget to leave time to just walk around the campus, taking it all in and considering whether you could see yourself as a student there.


Check out online options from your admissions office. Many colleges now offer virtual tours or other ways to learn more about campus if you can’t visit in person. Some also employ recently admitted students to write about their experiences with the application process and life on campus, which provides a more personal perspective.


Seek out unfiltered conversations with students and alums. The people best equipped to tell you what life’s really like on a campus are the ones who have actually experienced it. If they’re not speaking as official representatives of the school, they may be more honest about both the pros and the cons.


Ask questions if you can’t find the information you’re looking for. Your admissions office will likely be able to tell you in far greater detail about any areas of interest you have that aren’t covered by standard admissions materials or presentations. There’s a ton of information out there—you may just need help finding it.



How Can the Common Data Set Help Me?

As we’ve said, the CDS is not the be-all and end-all of college research. However, for a specific type of information, it presents the facts in a simple, standard, easy-to-access way that can be very helpful as you gather information and compare colleges.


This is especially true at the beginning of your college research process. If you already have some basic criteria for what you definitely do or don’t want in a college, based on factors like financial aid availability or enrollment numbers, you can use CDS data to quickly include or eliminate colleges you encounter.


Inevitably, though, you’re going to have to build off the data provided by the CDS and conduct some in-depth research on colleges you’re interested in. Finding a college that’s the right fit for you is about far more than facts and figures; it’s also about choosing a school that will meet your personal needs and help you advance your unique goals. That’s something you can only determine by engaging more personally with the college.


The CDS is a great place to start, and CDS reports are a useful way to keep track of the basic facts as you compare colleges and make your choices. Just remember to look deeper! There’s so much more to a college than the CDS can describe.


Looking for more advice about how to research and evaluate colleges? Check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog.


How to Start Your College Search

How to Research Colleges and Choose the Best Fit For You

Can’t Do A College Visit? Here’s How to Review Colleges Online

8 Things You May Not Think Of When Choosing a College


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.