Please consider the following data limitations when using College InSight.

Data on Student Debt at Graduation

The data on student debt at graduation are licensed from Peterson’s, a college guide publisher that uses questions from a shared survey instrument called the Common Data Set (CDS). Colleges voluntarily report data to Peterson’s, and we calculate the state and national averages based on those college-reported data.

There are several reasons why CDS data provide an incomplete picture of the debt levels of graduating seniors. Although the CDS questions ask colleges to report cumulative debt from both federal and private loans, colleges may not be aware of all the private loans their students carry. The CDS questions also instruct colleges to exclude transfer students and the debt those students carried in. In addition, because the survey is voluntary and not audited, colleges may actually have a disincentive for honest and full reporting. Colleges that accurately calculate and report each year’s debt figures rightfully complain that other colleges may have students with higher average debt but fail to update their figures, under-report actual debt levels, or never report figures at all. Additionally, very few for-profit colleges report debt data through CDS, and national data show that borrowing levels at for-profit colleges are, on average, much higher than borrowing levels at other types of colleges.

Despite the limitations of the CDS data, they are the only data available that show average cumulative student debt levels for bachelor’s degree recipients, including both federal and private loans, every year and at the college level. While far from perfect, CDS data are still useful for illustrating the variations in student debt across states and colleges.

The most comprehensive and reliable source of financial aid data at the national level is the Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). NPSAS is based on a large, nationally representative sample of students (including those at for-profit colleges), and is conducted every four years. Other TICAS publications and resources, including the national averages in our annual student debt reports, are based on NPSAS data and can be found at

Derived and Aggregated Data

Most of the college-level data displayed on this site were reported by the colleges themselves to federal and private survey organizations, or drawn from U.S. Department of Education data systems for federal financial aid programs. Some variables represent calculations made with these reported values. For example, the percentage of undergraduates who are full time is the number of full-time undergraduates divided by the total number of undergraduates. Both of these numbers are reported by colleges to IPEDS . All derived variables are identified in the codebook and pop-up descriptions.

For states, sectors, or other groupings of colleges, aggregate figures are calculated from the college-level data in one of three ways: 

  1. Sum of values at the college level (for counts of people or dollars)
  2. Enrollment-weighted average of values at the college level (for data reported only as averages or percentages at the college level)
  3. Re-calculated percentages, based on the sum of values at the college level for the numerator and denominator (for derived percentage variables)

See the codebook for more details on the calculations for specific aggregated variables.

Missing Data

Data may be missing for a particular variable for several reasons:

Mismatched Campus-level Data

The College InSight data set merges college-level data from three major source files (see Sources) plus calculated totals and averages for groupings of colleges. However, the source files do not use a consistent set of identifying school codes or school names, so mismatches are possible. Data reported at the system level may be for an entire public system (e.g., Pennsylvania State University) or all branch campuses for a college combined. In such cases, information is not available for each individual campus. In these cases, there is a separate entry for the “system” that shows the data as it was reported for a combination of campuses, as well as links in the system’s Spotlight page to each campus within that system. In general, the data from IPEDS (institutional characteristics, cost of attendance, fall and 12-month enrollment, financial aid, Pell Grants, and race-ethnicity) and CDS/Peterson’s (financial aid) are available at the campus level, while data from the FISAP (aid applications, income distributions) may be reported at the campus level or the system level. Since it is not always clear which campuses are included in the combined data for systems, these cases are particularly prone to matching problems.

Inconsistent Enrollment Data

Please consider before choosing which enrollment variable to use as the denominator in percentages. Since federal aid applications are received and funds dispersed throughout the academic year, the most appropriate enrollment numbers to use as the denominator for those percentages are the 12-month student totals. However, the 12-month totals reported on FISAP do not always agree with the 12-month totals reported by the same colleges in IPEDS. When there are large differences between the two figures for a given college, be careful when interpreting percentages calculated from either one.

Estimates of Economic Diversity

Care should be taken in reaching conclusions about the economic diversity of all students based on the income distribution of dependent and independent financial aid applicants. Students are not required to report their family income unless they apply for financial aid. In many cases, it is reasonable to assume that those who do not apply for financial aid tend to come from high-income families; however, particularly at open-admission colleges, students may be unaware that they are eligible for aid or intimidated by the financial aid application paperwork. For example, colleges with higher proportions of part-time students generally have lower proportions of financial aid applicants, even though part-time students pursuing undergraduate degrees are eligible for federal Pell Grants.

Estimates of Dependent Students

Dependency status for students under 24 is only recorded for financial aid applicants. College InSight estimates the total number of dependent students at a college based on the percentage of students age 24 or younger (derived from IPEDS) and the average percentage of students in this age group that are dependent (varies by type of college). The total number of independent students is calculated by subtracting dependent students from all students. As a result, the college-level variables for the total number of dependent students and total number of independent students are only approximations.

Some states and colleges use their own definition of dependency when awarding the financial aid from their own funds. Only the federal definition is used for estimating the total number of dependent students on College InSight.

Estimates of FTE undergraduates

College InSight estimates the number of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) undergraduates as the sum of full-time undergraduates and about 40 percent (the factor varies somewhat by type of college) of part-time undergraduates, as reported by colleges to IPEDS. Individual schools and other agencies calculate FTE according to different methodologies based on the number of full-time and part-time students and/or the number of credits. Therefore, FTE figures may vary from one source to another.

Percentages larger than 100

Percentage figures in College InSight are calculated using a variety of variables, sometimes from multiple sources. In some cases, the percentages turn out to be greater than 100% due to a discrepancy between sources, the estimation procedures described above, or errors in reporting by colleges. In all cases when the percentage figure was outside the normal range, the percentage was marked as missing.


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