Access & Persistence: Findings from 10 Years
of Longitudinal Research on Students. ERIC Digest.
by Choy, Susan P.
What do we really know about who's going to college? Who persists on
the path toward a college degree or credential? What happens to students
after they enroll?
To answer these questions, the U.S. Department of Education's National
Center for Education Statistics (NCES) launched three national longitudinal
studies to track students' movements into and through the postsecondary
education system. These three surveys, launched more than a decade ago,
include the National Education Longitudinal Study, the Beginning Postsecondary
Student Longitudinal Study, and the Baccalaureate and Beyond Study. Detailed
descriptions of the surveys can be downloaded from the NCES web site at
http://nces.ed.gov. Some of the surveys' key findings about college access,
student characteristics, and academic persistence are summarized below.
College Students Today
* Today's college students are a diverse group: 30 percent are minorities,
20 percent were born outside the United States or have a foreign born parent,
and 11 percent spoke a language other than English while growing up.
* Traditionally, four-year college students have enrolled full time
immediately after graduating from high school; depended on their parents
to take care of most, if not all, financial responsibilities; and worked
part time or not at all. Today, only 40 percent of four-year college students
fit this traditional mold.
* About three-quarters of all four-year college students now earn a
paycheck, and about one-quarter of them work full time.
Access to College
* A young person's likelihood of attending a four-year college increases
with the level of their parents' education. This is true even for the most
highly qualified high school seniors.
* Taking challenging mathematics courses can mitigate the effect of
parents' education on college enrollment. The association between taking
a rigorous high school math curriculum and going to college is strong for
all students, but especially for those whose parents did not go beyond
* More at-risk students apply to college if their friends plan to go.
College outreach programs, as well as parental and school support with
the application process, also have proven worthwhile.
* The price of attending college is still a significant obstacle for
students from low- and middle-income families, but financial aid is an
equalizer, to some degree. Low-income students enroll at the same rate
as middle-income students if they take all the necessary steps toward enrollment.
Staying in School Once Enrolled
* Even if students leave the first college in which they enroll, they
do not necessarily drop out of the postsecondary system; they often transfer
to another school. Therefore, the dropout and completion records of individual
institutions understate the overall postsecondary persistence.
* Students can increase their likelihood of succeeding in college by
enrolling in a rigorous high school program and limiting the number of
hours they work while in college.
* Risk factors that make it more difficult for students to complete
college include working full time, starting at a community college, and
having parents who did not attend college.
The Importance of the First Year
* Most students who leave college during or after their first year return
sometime during the next six years. More often, though, they enroll in
a different institution, rather than returning to the first one.
Time to Degree
* Sixty-four percent of students who earned their bachelor's degree
in 1992-1995 had finished within five years, meaning that just over one-third
had taken more than five years to earn their degree.
Life After College
* About one-third of those who earned their bachelor's degree enroll
in a graduate program within four years. Men and women enroll at the same
rates but tend to select different programs. Women are less likely to choose
MBA, professional, and doctoral programs, and are more likely to choose
master's programs other than an MBA.
* Although students whose parents did not go to college are at a disadvantage
with respect to college access and persistence, if they do finish a bachelor's
degree, their employment outcomes are similar to those of their peers with
* Just over one-third of all graduates were repaying student loans four
years after they finished college. They payments, averaging about $150
per month, were not burdensome for most when compared with their incomes,
although these pre-date recent large increases in borrowing. Conclusion
Developing a keen understanding of what has been learned about these
issues from students is the first step higher education leaders can take
toward expanding opportunities for all students. Campus leaders might use
these studies and data as guideposts for examining the critical characteristics
and experiences of their current and prospective students.
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