Common Data Set: Finding College Bargains

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One of the niftiest tools you can use when evaluating whether you can afford a college or university is its Common Data Set.

When I was researching my book, The College Solution, I remember I was excited when I discovered the Common Data Set.

Anytime that I research a school, I check out its latest Common Data Set. When you get your hands on this document, you’ll obtain far more data than you would get curling up with any college guide.

Every college and university produces its own yearly Common Data Set, which contains a treasure trove of information about its admissions and financial aid practices.  Each school’s Common Data Set shares statistics on such things as merit scholarships and need-based financial aid, as well as graduation rates, the freshmen class profile, freshman retention rates, and what the institution values the most when evaluating applicants.

The format for every Common Data Set is identical. So the Harvard Common Data Set displays the same layout as the Common Data Set for Ohio State, Notre Dame, UCLA, Boston College and any other institution.  The Common Data Set was dreamed up as a way to satisfy publishers of college guides, such as Princeton Review, Kaplan and Fiske, which have a voracious appetite for school statistics.

I’m going to use my daughter’s school, Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, as an example, of what you can uncover in a Common Data Set.  When I looked at Juniata’s financial aid section, I discovered that 315 out of 375 freshmen applied for financial aid and 271 were determined to qualify.

All of these 271 students received financial grants — that’s free money — and the average need-based grant was $17,666. The average student loan for these kids was $4,315.

What I also discovered was that 104 students, who were too affluent for aid, still received assistance. They received merit awards — the average one was worth $15,414. That’s a generous award.

When you add up the numbers, you’ll discover that everybody obtained some sort of grant, which is pretty amazing. At many schools, there are plenty of students who must pay full price. Not at Juniata.

When you look at figures like these, it’s much easier to calculate whether a school will be affordable. If your son or daughter has assembled a list of colleges, print out the Common Data Set for each of them. Only after comparing the generosity of schools and their requirements for merit scholarships and financial aid can you form a pretty good idea of whether these schools make financial sense or whether the hunt should continue.

FYI, an easy way to find a school’s Common Data Set is to Google the term along with the name of the school.

Further Reading:

Finding College Cash in Obscure Documents

What’s Up With Washington University

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2 Responses to “Common Data Set: Finding College Bargains”

  1. karen says:

    thanks but can’t find a common data set for the one school i want to see university of southern cal? can u help?

  2. Lynn O’Shaughnessy says:

    Hi Karen,

    I would ask the University of Southern California for a copy of it — just a link woudl be fine. If the school balks for some reason, another wonderful resource is the federal College Navigator. Just Google “College Navigator to find it. I’ve provided the link to USC’s info:

    Good luck. Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution

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