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Understanding college facts & stats

Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley

Capstone is very excited to introduce our newest resource: Collegepedia. It is a freely accessible, information-rich repository of critical information that students and their families need to know while building their college lists. We have used our personal experience visiting colleges, talking to current and former students, working with other college admissions specialists, and scouring the internet for the most up-to-date information on these schools. Each article is full of links to the universities’ websites and other sources of information so you can find out more or verify the interpretations we present here. Our hope is that this will serve as a launchpad for your own research and provide you with insights you may not be aware of. More colleges are coming down the pipeline every month, so check back regularly to stay in the loop!

In this article, we want to explore some of the most common challenges in evaluating colleges. Even when a school provides lots of data up-front, it can be misleading unless you know what to look for. Sometimes, markers of prestige aren’t everything they’re understood to be. The goal of the college admissions process should be to find the campus where the student fits in best and will have the most enriching experience—not necessarily the most famous, popular, or selective. Collegepedia exists to help you find the right fit so you have a greater chance of achieving that goal in your academic career.

Reliability of admission statistics

The statistics that colleges report on admission and retention rates are variable and easy to manipulate. Colleges have a strong interest in reporting the “best” data they can, to increase their rankings and selectivity, no matter how strong their academic programs are. As a result, many campuses employ tactics to make their selectivity statistics appear stronger than they actually are. The following methods are all designed to increase the number of applications without improving the quality of the school’s education:

  • Recruiting applicants to whom the college has no intention of offering admission (recruiting to reject);
  • Waiving the application fee;
  • Reducing the number of essays required;
  • Adjusting the proportion of students admitted through Early Decision;
  • Admitting larger or smaller numbers of athletes, donors, legacies, and students in the catchment area, in order to optimize overall admission rates.

Graduation rates, in particular, are also not a reliable predictor of the quality of a college. Reported rates vary widely among public schools and between public and private schools. Private colleges report higher rates because they select in part for students who have a high likelihood of graduating within four years. Public colleges—even elite ones—are responsible for the education of a broader student population of greater diversity. They also sometimes recruit from local catchment areas where students are more likely to commute to campus and work full or part time jobs, which draws out the time required to complete a degree.

Single-digit admission rates are generally a meaningful indication of selectivity, but those campuses are not a good fit for all students.

In short, it is important not to judge a campus based on highly variable admissions and retention statistics, but rather to consider your own educational and career goals and to consider factors such as size, campus setting, distance from home, the social environment, and how well you fit into the student body at the schools you are considering.

Capstone uses a broad and inclusive analysis of the colleges on our students’ lists to determine the likelihood of their acceptance to each one, based on several admissions data points and direct experience working with applicants.

Determining who thrives and who faces challenges at a given campus

Capstone evaluates which types of students are most likely to thrive or have challenges at a given college based on personal visits—together we have toured over a hundred campuses—and careful evaluation of students’ reported experiences, where available, including those of students we’ve worked with in the past. (Take a look at our Results for a list of the colleges where our students have been accepted.) We also benefit from our college admissions colleagues’ knowledge about campuses we are less familiar with.

While we have provided the best information we can on the colleges and universities in our Collegepedia project, the best way for students and families to evaluate whether they will thrive at a college is to visit it themselves. We strongly recommend that you take official tours at the campuses you’re most interested in so you can get a feel for what life there feels like. The best time to go is in the middle of the week during the Fall or Spring semester while classes are in session. More events take place then, and you will be able to get a better sense of what the other students are like and how daily life moves at that college. You will also get a chance to meet students, faculty, and staff, and take guided tours that might not be available if you visit during the summer. Another important opportunity to visit is in April of senior year when admitted student events take place.

Learning differences

Visiting a college is the best way to evaluate how well a student with learning differences will be served there. Colleges often provide lots of information online about resources, services, and programs for students with learning differences, and Capstone uses that information to help families make informed choices about which colleges are right for them, but it can only go so far. Sometimes college websites simply don’t report everything the campus offers, while in other cases it will suggest that more services are available than they actually provide. We read between the lines of what a college tells the public, and report our expert assessment in the Support for Learning Differences sections of our Collegepedia articles.

To help students and their families navigate this difficult aspect of college selection, Capstone facilitates virtual meetings between families and colleges’ disability and learning differences staff when in-person visits are not feasible. We ensure that families know all the right questions to ask and have access to the information they need to determine whether different programs offer the services and support that their unique students need to thrive.


Colleges use data analytics to predict how much merit aid they need to offer a given student in order to persuade that student (and their family) to attend. The amount offered may not strictly reflect the amount that a family actually needs to be able to afford to attend. The Net Price Calculators (NPCs) that colleges offer online to help predict how much you might be expected to pay can also vary dramatically in quality between institutions. As a result, families may have a difficult time assessing both how much they may need to pay, and the basis upon which colleges’ aid offers are made at the time of the admissions offer.

The total cost of attendance information given in Collegepedia is not a measure of how much you will be expected to pay, but rather the cost of attending for students who receive no aid at all. Elsewhere, we try to provide a holistic and average-based analysis of the general cost for students who do stand to receive aid based on the information available to us. The difficulty in assessing the true cost of an undergraduate education means, however, that this information is subject to change and may not be completely accurate at the time of your own application.

Students and families who work with Capstone for college applications and admissions service receive personalized and detailed information about how families can assess the true cost of attendance at each particular college, given their unique circumstances, so that families can make informed decisions about how to pay for their students’ educations.

Housing options

Housing availability can vary over time, and reported statistics may lag behind on-the-ground changes. Housing, both on- and off-campus, may become impacted if a college increases the student population, or less impacted if the college completes a building campaign. If a campus’s local community fails to build enough housing to keep up with population demands, then students may find housing difficult to access due to cost or lack of options.

Capstone stays up to date on the state of housing availability and accessibility at the colleges where our students apply, and is a factor we discuss with our students while developing their college list.

As you and your child assess college options, please contact Capstone if you have questions or concerns. We are here to help!

Featured image (top): Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley

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