Common Data Sets: An Admissions Goldmine

Admissions statistics by gender. Early decision admission rates. Enrollment breakdowns by race. Regular decision admission rates. Class sizes. Average SAT scores. Percentage of students involved in Greek life. Average indebtedness.

Everything in one document. One document per school. Updated every single year.

It’s a goldmine, though few people seem to know about it.

What is a Common Data Set?

“The Common Data Set (CDS) initiative is a collaborative effort among data providers in the higher education community and publishers as represented by the College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report. The combined goal of this collaboration is to improve the quality and accuracy of information provided to all involved in a student’s transition into higher education, as well as to reduce the reporting burden on data providers.”

Most every institution in the US publishes a CDS on their websites. Essentially, the CDS gives you access all the data that college ranking programs use to make a judgement about the quality of a particular school. Now you can look at that data and make a decision for yourself.

Where do I find these CDS?

Most of the time, if you Google search “College X Common Data Set,” you won’t have a difficult time finding any CDS. Usually the links are on the school’s Office of Institutional Research page though this varies from school to school.

What are the best features?

We’ll take a look at Swarthmore’s CDS as a case study for some of the best information you can learn about any college.

Enrollment by Race

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Find out the racial and ethnic breakdown of the college. How many other black students will you go to school with? Will you be the only international student?

Graduation Rates

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What percentage of the student body actually graduates? Low graduation rates are often a bad sign. Why are so many students failing to get a degree? Are you willing to risk spending big money and failing to graduate?

Retention Rates

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 12.38.00 AMThis tells you what percentage of freshmen transfer before the start of the next school year. A high transfer rate can indicate that maybe students aren’t happy with the particular college. It should be a clue to dig deeper and figure out what’s really going on.

Admission Rates by Gender

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This gives you some prime admissions data. It tells you what percentage of applicants get in and breaks it up by gender. Do men have an easier time getting in compared to women? Then it tells you what percentage of admitted applicants actually attend. This is called the yield. A high yield can indicate that the school was the first choice of many applicants. Harvard has one of the highest yields at roughly 70%.

Waiting List Admission Rates

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 12.43.47 AMIf you were placed on the waiting list, you can usually find out if you have a reasonable shot of getting in. While Swarthmore doesn’t give too much information here, usually you can find out what percentage of students who agree to stay on the wait list actually get in. This is useful in trying to gauge your odds.

Admissions Criteria

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 12.46.49 AMHere you can learn what criteria each college uses in admissions. One important thing to note is whether “demonstrated interest” is used in admissions decisions. At Swarthmore, interest is considered which means that a visit or interview could work in your favor if you’re trying to get in.

Test Score Data

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 12.50.01 AMWhile it’s not usually difficult to find a school’s median SAT scores online, it’s usually much more difficult to find the information above. You can look here and see that most students score in the 700s on each component of the SAT. If you scored in the 500s on any particular component, your odds of gaining admission are likely very, very slim as only about 4% are in your company (and likely they have better scores in the other sections). If you’ve got scores that place you in the bottom range, you better be sure to have some sort of a hook that will help admissions officers look past it.

If the particular college is test optional, do know that the scores given will be inflated as you’re only looking at the small sample of students who chose to submit their scores. Likely the ranges would be much lower if all students were required to submit their scores.

Transfer Admissions

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 12.54.21 AMTransfer data. Are your odds better or worse if you apply as a transfer? At Swarthmore it appears to be a bit harder with a transfer admissions rate of less than 10%.

Student Life

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The student life data can help give you as good a picture of what it’s like to go to a college as you can get from just numbers. An important statistic is the percentage of students who participate in Greek life. This can give you an idea of how central Greek life is to the social life of a particular campus.

Financial Aid

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 12.59.32 AMHere we’ve got the critical financial aid information. Of the students who apply for aid, how many actually get any money? And is that money real financial aid, or is it mostly made up of loans that you have to pay back?

Average Indebtedness

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Average indebtedness is probably the MOST important piece of information you can take from the CDS. What kind of debt do most students graduate with regardless of the financial aid packages offered by the school? Numbers higher than $30,000 should raise some serious red flags.

Faculty Makeup

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 1.05.12 AMWhat will your professors look like? Is there equal representation of women and men?Are most doctorates?

Class Size

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And the second most important piece of data — class size. How many of your classes will end up being big lectures? At Swarthmore, probably very few. There are only 8 classes with enrollment over 50. The vast majority of classes are under 20 students.

Three Cheers for the CDS

Knowledge is power. With the Common Data Set, you can get the information you need to make an informed decision about whether a particular college is a good fit for your — financially, academically, and socially.

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