The Common Data Set (CDS) is a collaborative effort among data providers in the higher education community and publishers as represented by the College Board, Peterson's, and U.S. News & World Report. The goal of the CDS is to improve the quality and accuracy of information provided to all involved in a student's transition into higher education, as well as to reduce the reporting burden on data providers.

By developing clear, standard data items and definitions in order to determine a specific cohort relevant to each item. Data items and definitions used by the U.S. Department of Education in its higher education surveys often serve as a guide in the continued development of the CDS. Common Data Set items undergo broad review by both the CDS Advisory Board, and by data providers representing secondary schools and two- and four-year colleges. Feedback from those who use the CDS is also considered throughout the annual review process.

Rather than a survey instrument or database, the CDS is a set of standards and definitions of data items. Each of the higher education surveys conducted by the participating publishers incorporates items from the CDS. Every survey is different, however, as publishers use different varieties of applicable items from the CDS.