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About College Reality Check

College Reality Check is produced by The Chronicle of Higher Education with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the Web site is to share facts and figures that students, parents, and counselors should weigh in making decisions about college. These factors, often overlooked, include colleges’ graduation rates and net price, how much it will take each month to pay off student loans, and how much a graduate might potentially earn. 

The tool is designed in a visually stimulating way to make absorbing the numbers easy and allow for quick comparisons among colleges. 

Our hope is that you will use the site at various points on the journey to college, to help you build that initial list or narrow your final choices. As you find your own stories in the statistics, we urge you to share them with others through the tools we have provided to download, print, or post on Facebook or Twitter.


The site also offers background materials on the issues behind the numbers, as well as plenty of links to resources for more information and past and current news coverage of the topics.

The Chronicle was guided throughout the process of building this site by a board of advisers. We would like to thank those advisers for their service: Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; Nicole Farmer Hurd, founder and executive director of the National College Advising Corps; Stephen Jordan, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver; Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College; Kent Phillippe, senior research associate at the American Association of Community Colleges; Elise Miller of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. 

We look forward to hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Jeffrey J. Selingo
Editor at Large
The Chronicle of Higher Education

About the Data


College Reality Check compares data from 3,578 degree-granting institutions in the United States (excluding territories) that reported a first-time, full-time undergraduate degree-seeking cohort, have at least 100 undergraduate students, and awarded undergraduate degrees during the 2010-11 academic year.

Institutions are labeled by degree (two-year associate or four-year baccalaureate), control (public or private), size and selectivity. Large institutions are those with 10,000 or more students, medium institutions are those with between 3,000 and 9,999 students, and small institutions are those with fewer than 3,000 students. Very selective institutions are those that admit fewer than 35 percent of applicants, moderately selective institutions are those that admit between 35 percent and 70 percent of applicants, and minimally selective institutions are those that admit more than 70 percent of applicants.

Average net price

Data on colleges’ average net price come from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education System (Ipeds). The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 defines institutional net price as the “average yearly price actually charged to first-time, full-time undergraduate students receiving student aid at an institution of higher education after deducting such aid.” Therefore, average net price figures include only those students who receive Title IV federal financial aid and do not include students paying the full sticker price.

The average net price is calculated by subtracting the average amount of federal, state, and local government aid and institutional grant and scholarship aid from the total cost of attendance. Total cost of attendance includes tuition, fees, books and supplies, and the weighted average of room and board and other expenses.

In a few cases, the average net price may be negative for a particular income group at an institution. That means the average amount of aid and scholarships exceeds the cost of tuition and fees. Often this reflects a recent change in the way the institution calculates tuition and fees. 

For more information about the estimated net price you will pay on the basis of your family’s finances, click on the college’s Net Price Calculator link on any institution’s page.

Graduation rates

Graduation rates, which also come from Ipeds, track the number of first-time, full-time degree-seeking undergraduates who enroll at a college and the number who complete degrees within 100 percent, 150 percent, and 200 percent of normal time. 

College Reality Check displays 2010-11 graduation rates, the most recent data available. For two-year institutions, these rates represent students who started in 2008 and finished within two years (100-percent rate) or three years (150-percent rate) and students who started in 2007 and finished within four years (200-percent rate). Note that only the 150-percent graduation rate is categorized by race for two-year colleges.

For four-year institutions, the graduation rates represent students who entered in 2005 and graduated within four years (100-percent rate) or six years (150-percent rate) and students who started in 2003 and finished within eight years (200-percent rate). Note: 200-percent graduation rates are not available by racial groups for four-year schools.

Race and ethnicity

In 2009, Ipeds changed the way it classifies students by race and ethnicity. There are now nine such categories: white; black or African-American; Asian; Hispanic; American Indian or Alaska Native; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific islander; two or more races; nonresident alien; and race/ethnicity unknown. 

College Reality Check displays race-specific graduation rate data, when available, for the white, black, Asian, and Hispanic categories. Students who classified themselves in the other five categories are included in totals but not shown separately.

Debt repayment

Estimated debt repayment is calculated using median debt at graduation and assuming a 6.8 percent interest rate calculated over 10 years. Data for median debt at graduation are collected from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) by the White House’s College Scorecard  The data were updated most recently in February 2013. Data represent the median amount borrowed for undergraduate study by all undergraduate borrowers who graduated or withdrew from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. The figure includes all federal loans, including Parent PLUS loans, which are made by the Department of Education for parents of dependent undergraduates. Only the debt associated with the students’ attendance at the college is included in the calculation. Note that a student’s actual debt and interest rate may be different, and that Parent PLUS loans have a fixed 7.9-percent interest rate and are the responsibility of parents to pay back.

Default rate is calculated by dividing the number of borrowers in default for 2010 by the number of borrowers in repayment in 2010, from data released by the Department of Education’s Office of Student Financial Assistance Programs .

Early-career earnings

Average early career income data are collected by PayScale a private, independent company that conducts surveys of nonmilitary employees in the United States. Data are available only for graduates of 1,058 bachelor’s-degree-granting colleges. The data include only employees with bachelor’s degrees and no higher degrees. 

Average early-career salary is for full-time employees with five years of experience or less. Salary includes base annual salary or hourly wage, bonuses, profit-sharing, tips, commissions, overtime ,and other forms of cash earnings. It does not include stock compensation, retirement benefits, or the value of other noncash benefits, such as health care.

User Agreement

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In addition, this site is financed by support provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the purpose of providing comparative information concerning higher education in the United States. All statements and materials posted on the site reflect the views of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or The Chronicle of Higher Education.