Finding College Cash in Obscure Documents

If you want to shrink the cost of college, you should become acquainted with something called the Common Data Set.

The Common Data Set was dreamed up years ago as a way to satisfy collegiate publishers like US News & World Report and the College Board, which have voracious appetites for higher-ed statistics.

Rather than answering every publisher’s questions, schools fill out a lengthy standardized form each year and typically post the document on their websites — you just have to look for it.

To give you an example of what this document looks like here are the three most recent Common Data Sets for Harvard. And I’ve provided the link to UC Berkeley’s Common Data Set for each of the past 10 years.

The Common Data Set provides oodles of valuable information in these and other areas:

  • The characteristics that a school looks for in applicants.
  • Admission statistics.
  • Freshmen retention rate.
  • Annual expenses.
  • Financial aid.

My favorite section of any Common Data Set deals with the financial aid stats. In this part, you’ll find the number of students who applied for aid at a particular school and how many received need-based assistance. You’ll also find the breakdown of loans versus grants for the average student, as well as what percentage of financial need the college typically met.

All the above is helpful for middle- and low-income kids, who will receive financial aid packages. The Common Data Set also reveals whether a school provides merit aid to affluent kids. In the CDS, you’ll see this referred to as non-need-based aid. Looking at Princeton’s Common Data Set, for example, you’ll discover that the university doesn’t give merit aid, but the CDS for George Washington University  shows that this popular school dishes out discounts to rich kids.

I’m warning you that all Common Data Sets are dry, boring and lacking illustrations, but ignore them at your peril.

Further reading on the Common Data Set:

A Primer on College Scholarships

Researching Colleges in 10 Minutes

Common Data Set:  A Great Research Tool

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, as well as the college blogger for

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