A Complete Guide to Understanding IPEDS Reporting



Even as you read this, your institution of higher education is likely in the midst of some element of the IPEDS reporting cycle. With three reporting periods and a growing list of surveys, IPEDS seems to be endless. You know the surveys are required by the federal government, but why are they important? What makes IPEDS reporting worth all of the time and energy your institution puts into it? And how can you make the process easier?

This guide to understanding IPEDS reporting will answer all of your questions, including:

Understanding IPEDS might just make those surveys easier to accomplish. It will certainly help you feel better about all the time you spend gathering and reporting data.

What is IPEDS?

Commonly known as IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System is a system of surveys that gathers information from every post-secondary institution participating in federal student financial aid programs. This includes colleges, universities, technical schools and vocational institutions.

Reporting periods and surveys

Annual surveys are conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). They are broken up into three reporting periods:


  • Institutional Characteristics
  • Completions
  • 12-month Enrollment


  • Student Financial Aid
  • Graduation Rates
  • 200% Graduation Rates
  • Admissions
  • Outcome Measures.


  • Fall Enrollment
  • Finance
  • Human Resources
  • Academic Libraries

Survey goals, usage, and administration

The goal of these surveys is to provide basic data that will deepen understanding and enable analysis of postsecondary education in the United States. This data is used by government entities, professional associations, private business, the media, students and parents, and the education providers themselves.

Although the NCES conducts the surveys, their work is administered by RTI International and data is provided directly by the educational institutions and their representatives.

Data from IPEDS is used as source material for other NCES postsecondary surveys, including the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and the National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty.

Title IV

Although the collection of this data puts a burden on educational institutions, it’s a necessary effort. Institutions must complete IPEDS surveys if they plan to accept funding from Title IV federal student financial aid programs such as Pell grants and federal student loans. IPEDS reporting is mandated under Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, as amended. Completion of IPEDS surveys is mandated by 20 USC 1094, Section 487(a)(17). In the 2015-2016 school year 85% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students used financial aid to pay for all or part of their education. Many institutions could not continue to operate without Pell grants and federal student loans, which is why more than 7,500 institutions complete IPEDS surveys yearly.

What is the NCES?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity responsible for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the United States. They also gather data on other nations for the purposes of comparison. However, their main goal is to fulfil the congressional mandate to collect and report data on U.S. education, publish reports, and review educationally activities.

Legislative entities

Two legislatively mandated entities contribute to the mission of the NCES. These are the Advisory Council on Education Statistics, and the National Assessment Governing Board. The ACES reviews general operating policies and advises the NCES commissioner on setting standards for data gathering and dissemination. The NAGB develops policy guidelines for the National Assessment of Education Progress, an assessment of student knowledge and understanding in various subjects. From the results of that assessment the NAEP creates the Nation’s Report Card.

Data from these entities, IPEDS, and other data gathering and reporting efforts are used by planners, policymakers, educators, parents and students. This information helps planners and policymakers understand the state of education and helps parents and students make informed decisions about where to study, what to study, and how to pay for it.

NCES conducts annual IPEDS surveys and interprets the resulting data. NCES then releases the data in forms that are relevant to parents and students, researchers, and other interested parties.

Who is RTI and what is their role in IPEDS?

RTI International is the independent nonprofit research institute that has led IPEDS since 2000. They collect institution-level data from primary providers of postsecondary education nationwide. Many web applications used for IPEDS data collection and data dissemination were created by RTI. They also train respondents and researchers on how to share and use data. If you have questions about IPEDS or trouble completing your surveys, you’ll likely communicate with RTI over the phone or through email.

Who is usually responsible for the different surveys?

IPEDS keyholders are responsible for the submission of IPEDS data from their institutions. IPEDS data may come from many departments and individuals on campus, but the keyholder is the one who holds ultimate responsibility for ensuring that data is entered accurately and that surveys are submitted on time. The keyholder may designate as many as 16 additional people with user IDs and passwords that give them the ability to enter or review data. Once all the data is entered, the keyholder has the final responsibility of submitting or “locking” the survey.

Depending on the size and type of institution, the keyholder may rely on many others within the organization to either provide or directly enter data for each survey.

Information Data Supplying Department
Completions, Graduation Rates, 200% Graduation Rates, Outcome Measures, Admissions, 12-month Enrollment, Fall Enrollment Admissions office or Registrar’s office
Student Financial Aid Financial Aid office or Bursar’s office
Finance Finance office or Finance department
Human Resources Human Resources department
Academic Libraries Head of Library or Librarians

(Important Note: Institutional Research departments often oversee the entire IPEDS reporting process. At mid-to-large size institutions, they work with the departments and offices listed above to collect the necessary data. At smaller institutions, IR departments frequently gather the data themselves.)

Keyholders may also  work with IPEDS coordinators who are assigned to a particular state or system. Coordinators verify that each institution has provided the correct information. Every institution has a keyholder, but some may not have a coordinator. It all depends on the rules in your state or system.

What common issues might arise during IPEDS reporting?

A project as complex as IPEDS reporting won’t go smoothly all the time. You’re likely to hit at least a few speed bumps along the way. However, by knowing what issues have derailed others in the past, you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Common issue: Data entry errors.

How to avoid it: Stay vigilant.

This is, perhaps, the most common issue institutions face during IPEDS reporting. Even the most vigilant data entry professional can make a mistake now and then.

Make sure you have more than one set of eyes review every data set to ensure that everything is entered correctly. Avoid waiting until the last minute to enter data. If possible, implement a data management solution that can minimize the need for manual data entry and check data for mistakes.

Issue: Not following directions.

How to avoid it: Read directions.

Requirements for IPEDS reporting can change from year to year. If you’re not reading the directions every year, you may provide the wrong information in the wrong way.

Take time to thoroughly read and understand every instruction, even if you’ve been in charge of IPEDS reporting at your institution for years.

Issue: Bad data.

How to avoid it: Be clear.

Data sources change over time to improve efficiency, better reflect real-world situations, or upgrade technology. Pulling data from the wrong source or failing to explain changes in calculation methods and data gathering can cause serious issues.

Make sure everyone who is providing data knows what data sources they should be pulling from and what calculations they should be using. In your IPEDS report, clearly annotate any changes so data collectors know why they occurred.

Taking precautions to avoid these and other common errors will make your IPEDS reporting process run more smoothly.

Why is IPEDS reporting important?

IPEDS is an invaluable resource for describing institutional, state, and national trends in postsecondary education. It also provides students and families with unbiased consumer information to help them make sound decisions about where to enroll.

Outside the Higher Education industry

The data collected through IPEDS is used to inform high-profile public tools developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)—including College Navigator, the Trend Generator, the College and Career Tables Library, and the IPEDS Data Center. They serve as unbiased resources for students, parents, researchers and decision makers.

Within the Higher Education industry

Institutions and policymakers also use IPEDS data to make better decisions about programs, policies and students. The IPEDS Data Feedback Report, which is sent to college presidents annually, compares their institution with similar colleges and universities so each institution can see how it stacks up to peers.

In addition, data from IPEDS is used in:

  • 14 indicators on the Condition of Education report, an annual report to Congress
  • The College and Career Tables Library, which includes more than 5,000 tables from NCES’s postsecondary publications.
  • Other NCES postsecondary surveys.

What are the benefits of accurate reporting?

Accurate IPEDS reporting benefits both your institution and postsecondary education as a whole. Your institution will avoid fines and reprimands while maintaining the ability to accept federal financial aid. You’ll also get an accurate sense of how you compare to similar institutions across the country. The data will help you make sound decisions for your institution and its students.

Meanwhile, students and parents can better understand how your institution is performing. You’ll seem more transparent and, thus, more trustworthy.

Education, as a whole benefits, from accurate IPEDS reporting because policymakers get the information they need to make informed decisions. Researchers can better understand trends in higher education and the media can accurately report on them.

In conclusion

Institutions that want to receive federal funding must complete IPEDS reporting per government regulations. While IPEDS reporting is an inconvenience, it’s also provides vital information for students, parents, policymakers and others. Good planning, attention to detail and strong communication can make IPEDS less disruptive while also improving the overall accuracy of your reporting.

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  1. Ken Soona

    I needed to get some basic summary information about IPEDs data – the five W + H pieces. This article is amazing, and so helpful. Thank you for providing this great summary!

    • Eric Goldman

      You’re welcome, Ken!

      Eric Goldman
      Marketing Manager, Evisions


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