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EWA Tip Sheet: How to Find College Trends and Raw Data

Need to understand how to quickly find college trends and raw data to cover the story? Scott Smallwood walks education writers through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) database.

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The higher education beat is awash in data from varying state databases to an array of systems at the federal level, but the one that can be most helpful to reporters is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS

The comprehensive database created by the U.S. Department of Education collects information via annual surveys of all colleges and universities that participate in the federal financial aid system. Managed by the National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS has institutional-level data on student enrollment, admissions, staff salaries, financial aid and graduation rates, among other metrics. 

IPEDS has historical data, so reporters can use this database to see trends over time, unlike other higher education data systems, according to Scott Smallwood, the CEO and co-founder of Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on higher education. 

Smallwood walked reporters through the basics of IPEDS during a session at the Education Writers Association’s Higher Education Seminar: The Covid Generation in Alexandria, Virginia, this past January.

Find Higher Education Trends

The IPEDS Trend Generator can be a quick way for reporters to find high-level data points, such as the number of students enrolled at four-year institutions or the graduation rate for community colleges.

The trend generator suggests a range of questions to get journalists started, such as, How many applications for admission from first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students were received by postsecondary institutions in the fall? 

The results can be filtered down under “Limit Results” to state or type of institution. 

Questions to Research in IPEDS

Here are some questions that Smallwood said IPEDS can help answer: 

  • How has the gender split among undergraduates shifted in the last generation at colleges in my city?
  • Do low-income students graduate at the same rate as other students at my state’s public universities?
  • “Does the big university I cover have more tenured female professors than the three places it thinks of as its competitors?”

Get Raw Data on Institutions 

Getting raw institutional data out of IPEDS boils down to three steps: 

  1. Select institutions
  2. Pick variables
  3. Output the data

Select Institutions 

To start, go to the IPEDs website and click Use the Data  and then Compare Institutions.

For the first step, select individual institutions or search by groups. For example, if you’re writing about the gender split among undergraduates in Virginia, select “state or other jurisdiction” under special characteristics. To narrow the results further, pick “public, 4-year” under sector. 

Pick Variables 

Next up is picking the variables. For the gender question, click fall enrollment and then gender, attendance status and level of student. Select the years of data needed and then specify “undergraduate total” under level of student.

If you’re seeking enrollment data, Smallwood suggested picking the fall enrollment variable, which is a snapshot. 

When selecting variables, Smallwood suggested thinking about how you will write about the data in a sentence. 

Output the Data 

Before exporting the data, check the boxes to include both the institution name and UnitID as well as the long variable name in the spreadsheet. Additionally, download the data in a comma separated format.

The data in IPEDS is self-reported, meaning that colleges and universities supply the information. But, “it’s not the wild west,” Smallwood said. The Education Department gives instructions on how to calculate the different variables. (You can find a glossary of all the variables here.) 

For more information about the survey components, click here.

Getting the data is a key first step. You’ll often have to do some analysis to the data to find story ideas or usable information.

Other Higher Education Data Sources

In addition to IPEDS, data can also be found using other federal databases:


Scott Smallwood, “Demystifying IPEDS.”