College costs whatever you’re willing to pay. Costs range from free community college and free online programs to private colleges where costs are edging towards $100,000 annually. And of course, those are list prices; tuition discounting in the form of financial aid and scholarships wipes out an average of 56% of list price tuition annually.

None of that answers the most important question: What does this college I’m interested in cost me? Because that’s another fun element of college pricing: it’s a little bit like airline pricing where you and the person sitting next to you are probably paying different prices to get the same thing. If you don’t want to pay full price, how do you find out what a specific college is likely to offer you? Especially if you’re not a candidate for need-based aid?

Fortunately, there’s some data out there that can help. Net Price Calculators, which largely estimate need-based financial aid, are a great tool for need-eligible families. In addition, colleges report scholarship and financial aid information, among other things, via two surveys, the Common Data Set and the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data Set (IPEDS). There are some important differences between the two:

  • The Common Data Set is a voluntary system used by the College Board and US News & World Report, among others. As such, there have been numerous instances of colleges fudging their numbers to move up in the rankings, which tends to only get discovered if US News checks Common Data Set submissions against IPEDS data.
  • IPEDS is the Department of Education’s data system; colleges are required to report to the IPEDS system and the Department of Education verifies data submissions.

Each data set has some unique elements, so by looking at both you can get a reasonably good picture of a college’s financial aid and scholarship policies.

Two key elements in the Common Data Set are the percent of students without financial need who received a merit scholarship, and the average size of merit scholarships. This is essential for students who are not eligible for need-based aid. The Common Data Set also shows the percent of students who received need-based aid, the percent of financial aid applicants who were determined to have need, and the percent of need met. For example, a school that meets 100% of need for 100% of need-eligible students is more generous than one that only meets 75% of need.

IPEDS shows the average net price as well as average net price by income level. It has additional information about class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios, excluding courses taught by TA’s or graduate assistants. One key difference between net prices in IPEDS and CDS: CDS allows colleges to count subsidized student loans as gift aid, whereas IPEDS only allows scholarships and grants to be included. This might cause a college to appear less generous on IPEDS because, well, loans are less generous than scholarships or grants.

Both show test score data; CDS also shows GPAs. Both of these are of course helpful in identifying whether your student is likely to receive a merit scholarship. For example, if a college offers merit scholarships to 50% of students and your student’s GPA lands them in the top 50%, then they are likely to get a merit scholarship from the college. If they’re in the top 25%, then you might reasonably expect a merit scholarship around the average amount listed.

How do you access this data? CDS data can be found by googling “[school name] Common Data Set.” In addition, aggregators like CollegeData and The College Board include some CDS info on their sites. IPEDS data can be found via the Look up an Institution link on the National Center for Education Statistics’ website. CollegeNavigator aggregates the data as well.

Need a plan to get your student through the application process with your household finances intact? Check out my College Financial Plan masterclass. This self-paced online course walks you through developing a budget, finding schools that fit your budget, filing the FAFSA, finding scholarships, appealing a financial aid award and so much more!