Use Non-Official Data Aggregators at your Own Peril

Strategic Insights Blog | October 1, 2014

It started innocuously enough: we wanted to compile data on net prices at flagship public institutions and compare them to the top rated private college in their respective states. But since IPEDS only tracks net price data for in-state students receiving Title IV aid, we needed information on the total number of in-state students receiving aid in order to conduct accurate comparisons on the affordability of these institutions. IPEDS doesn’t provide these data, but several non-official information aggregation sites do. We looked at two of these sites, collegedata.com and collegefactual.com.

 

1. Net Price Inconsistency

A perusal of information on both of these websites reveals that although we may live in the era of Big Data, it’s best to tread lightly. There were many puzzling discrepancies on both College Factual and College Data, along with data that were not consistent with IPEDS reporting, despite both sites claiming to use IPEDS as a core source.

The first issue came up when were looking at data for the University of Washington flagship institution in Seattle. IPEDs reports that the 2012-2013 average University of Washington net price for students receiving Title IV aid was $9,559. College Factual claims to use IPEDS as part of its methodology for cost data, but its net price data for UW does not include the $9,559 estimate for 2013. In fact, five separate net price estimates are included for UW on College Factual, none of them matching IPEDS: net price for all in-state students combined (with and without aid), net price for Freshman out-of-state students separated by those who received aid and those who didn’t, and Freshman in-state students separated by those who received aid and those who didn’t. None of this data is provided by IPEDS, so there’s some question as to how College Factual compiles it. Furthermore, the average net price of in-state Freshman receiving aid ($13,831) seems suspiciously higher than IPEDs net price number for all in-state students receiving aid. Either UW raised its net prices significantly for incoming in-state freshman, or something else is at fault.

It gets even more confusing from there, however. We mentioned above that College Factual references five separate net prices for UW. There’s actually a sixth net price listed that is seemingly pulled out of nowhere. At the bottom of each university net price page on College Factual, there is a bar graph comparing the institution’s average net price to the national net price average for four-year institutions. UW’s average net price here is listed as $12,856, which is lower than any previous listed net price from College Factual, but still not consistent with any IPEDs data.

A look at other institutions reveals that College Factual is all over the map. The average net price figure quoted on the bar graph section for University of Colorado is relatively consistent with IPEDs data, but not for the University of Virginia. In short, College Factual’s net price data that does not align with its own methodological sources. Perhaps its “facts” are something else altogether.

 

2. Aid award inconsistency

Both College Factual and College Data report statistics on the percentage of Freshmen who receive financial aid and the average aid award for each. College Factual claims its data is based on “2013 estimates,” although it’s unclear whether that means the 2012-2013 school year or the 2013-2014 school year. College Data’s info, on the other hand, is clearly delineated as the 2013-2014 school year. Nevertheless, College Data isn’t very upfront about its methodology, and it’s unclear how either source got its financial aid data, since the findings are pretty divergent. Lets look at aid the data, first for the University of Washington, then the University of Virginia.

 

Even accounting for a possible school year difference separating the data from College Factual and College Data, it is unlikely that there would be such a significant increase in freshman receiving aid and the average aid award from year-to-year. The discrepancy between both sources, coupled with the vague methodology, makes it easy to understand why prospective students and their families are profoundly confused about price and aid.

 

3. Exercise caution

The understanding and analysis of college affordability has grown more sophisticated over time. Only the uninformed make the mistake of citing the sticker price as a measure of affordability, and some publications have even gone as far as calculating net prices as a percentage of median state income to underscore the ROI each in-state student will receive. Yet these new data aggregators are reporting potentially inaccurate net price and aid data that clashes with official sources like IPEDS. Parents, students and administrators would be wise to rely on only official institutional data or information reported by IPEDs or NCES.

For more info on how prospective students are affected by sticker and net prices, check out this issue of studentPOLL, "A Majority of Students Rule Out Colleges Based on Sticker Price."