Data & Research RESEARCH
Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000

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Executive Summary

Principal Indicators is a descriptive account of the major features of the postsecondary academic experience and attainment of traditional-age students during the period 1972-2000, with an emphasis on the period 1992-2000. To provide this account, the report draws on three grade-cohort longitudinal studies that were designed and carried out by the National Center for Education Statistics, and within those studies, high school and (principally) college transcript records:

  • The National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS:72), which began with a national sample of 22,500 12th graders in U.S. high schools in the spring of 1972 and followed subgroups of the cohort to 1986. The postsecondary transcripts for 12,600 members of this cohort were gathered in 1984, when most were 30 or 31 years old.
  • The High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores (HS&B/So:80-92), which began with a national sample of 30,000 10th graders in U.S. high schools in 1980 and followed subgroups of this cohort to 1992. The postsecondary transcripts for 8,400 members of this cohort were gathered in 1993, when most cohort members were 29 or 30 years old.
  • The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88/2000), which began with a national sample of 25,000 8th graders in U.S. schools in 1988 and followed subgroups of this cohort to 2000. The postsecondary transcripts for 8,900 members of this cohort were gathered in 2000, when most cohort members were 26 or 27 years old. More than half the tables in Principal Indicators are confined to the history of this-the most recent-cohort.

To provide consistency in comparing the experience of students in the three cohorts, the populations used for the data tables in Principal Indicators are confined to those students who were in the 12th grade in the year they were scheduled to graduate from high school. This parameter was determined by the earliest of the grade cohorts, NLS:72, which began in the 12th grade. Hence, the three cohorts are referred to throughout the document as

  • the high school class of 1972, 
  • the high school class of 1982, and 
  • the high school class of 1992.

By confining the universe to 12th graders, high school dropouts who had not returned to be with their scheduled class and early graduates are excluded from this account of the postsecondary histories of the classes of 1982 and 1992.

The tables in Principal Indicators cover topics of geographic mobility, postsecondary access and degree of participation, postsecondary attainment (degrees, credits, time-to-degree), attendance patterns, majors, curriculum clusters, grades, and remediation. A companion document-The Empirical Curriculum: Changes in Postsecondary Course-Taking, 1972-2000-provides a more detailed account of the curricular experience of the three grade cohorts.

Major Topics and Illustrative Observations

Demography and Geography

One of the more important changes in the behavior of postsecondary student populations over the past quarter century is geographic and inter-institutional mobility. When students move from institution to institution and state to state in the course of their undergraduate careers, they create a very different dynamic for analyses of persistence and degree completion.

  • The proportion of postsecondary students from second-language backgrounds doubled (from 5 to 10 percent) between the high school classes of 1982 and 1992 (table 1.3). 
  • A higher proportion of postsecondary students in the high school class of 1992 came from high schools in the five Southern and Western census divisions than was the case for the high school class of 1982 (table 1.2). 
  • One out of 10 bachelor's degree recipients in the high school class of 1992 earned the degree in a state other than the state in which they began their college careers (table 1.6). 
  • Nearly 40 percent of bachelor's degree recipients in the high school class of 1992 later resided in a state other than the state in which they received their degree (table 1.7).

Postsecondary Attainment, Access, and Participation

Given the increasing proportion of traditional-age students continuing on to postsecondary education after high school, policy discussions and research have come to be dominated more by issues of retention, persistence, completion, and time-to-degree than by basic access.

  • The bachelor's degree attainment rate for all students who earned more than 10 postsecondary credits was in the range of 45-49 percent over the history of the three cohorts (table 2.1). 
  • The bachelor's degree attainment rate for all students who earned any credits from a bachelor's degree granting institution was 66-67 percent over the history of the three cohorts (table 2.2). 
  • Average elapsed time-to-degree for those who earned bachelor's degrees within 8.5 years of high school graduation in the class of 1992 was 4.56 calendar years, compared with 4.45 years for the comparable group in the class of 1982 and 4.34 years for the comparable group in the class of 1972. (table 2.3).
  • Seventy-seven percent of the high school class of 1992 attended at least one postsecondary institution within 8.5 years of scheduled high school graduation. This access rate compares with 63 percent for the class of 1982 over an 11-year period, and 58 percent for the class of 1972 over a 12-year period. The gaps in access between the highest and lowest socioeconomic status quintiles over the three cohorts are more pronounced than those by race/ethnicity (table 2.4). 
  • When the universe is confined to students in the class of 1992 who earned standard high school diplomas within a year of scheduled graduation, the differences in access rates between White and both African-American and Latino students are statistically insignificant (table 2.7) while differences by socioeconomic status quintile remain (table 2.8).

Attendance Patterns

An examination of attendance patterns reveals increasing complex configurations, but also enables analysts to sort out distinct groups of students to target either for enhanced precollegiate preparation or special guidance in postsecondary institutions. Understanding these patterns is particularly important for enrollment management at the state system and institutional levels.

  • One out of eight students in the class of 1992 who entered postsecondary education became an "incidental" student, that is, earned 10 or fewer credits and no credentials (table 3.1). Over 40 percent of these students delayed entry to postsecondary education (compared with 15 percent of nonincidental students); 75 percent started out in a community college (compared with 36 percent of nonincidental students); two out of three were enrolled for less than1 year; and 42 percent never got beyond Algebra 1 in high school (vs. 11 percent of nonincidental students) ( table 3.2). 
  • One out of 10 students in the class of 1992 who entered postsecondary education earned 60 or more credits but no degree within 8.5 years of high school graduation. There were no differences by race/ethnicity in this group, although men were more likely than women to fall into this category (table 3.1). When compared to their peers who earned associate's and/or bachelor's degrees, this group was characterized more by noncontinuous enrollment, multi-institutional attendance, a higher proportion of courses from which they withdrew, and a low number of credits earned in the first calendar year of postsecondary attendance (table 3.3). 
  • Eighty-eight percent of the students from the class of 1992 who entered postsecondary education persisted from their first to second year. Among those who did not persist, two-thirds started in community colleges and 70 percent earned less than 10 credits in their first calendar year of attendance (table 3.4). 
  • Fifty-seven percent of students in the class of 1992 who earned more than 10 credits attended more than one school as undergraduates, compared with 51 percent for the class of 1982 and 47 percent for the class of 1972. 
  • Among those who earned bachelor's degrees, nearly 60 percent attended more than one school as undergraduates in the class of 1992, 58 percent in the class of 1982, and 57 percent in the class of 1972 (table 4.1). Among those in the class of 1992 who started in a 4-year college and earned a bachelor's degree, one out of five earned the degree from an institution other than the one in which they began their postsecondary careers (table 1.6).
  • Of all students who began their postsecondary careers in community colleges and earned more than 10 credits from community colleges, 36 percent of those in the class of 1992 formally transferred to a 4-year college, compared with 27 percent in the class of 1982 and 28 percent for the class of 1972. Of these transfer populations, the bachelor's degree attainment rate was 72 percent for the 11- and 12-year histories of the classes of 1972 and 1982 and 62 percent for the 8.5-year history of the class of 1992 (table 4.4). 
  • Twenty-seven percent of African-American college students in the class of 1992 attended one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) at some time in their undergraduate careers (table 4.5). 
  • Forty-eight percent of Latino college students in the class of 1992 attended a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) at some time in their undergraduate careers. Nearly two-thirds of Latino students who attended HSIs started in a 2-year HSI (table 4.6). 
  • Nineteen percent of postsecondary participants in the class of 1992 earned college credits while still enrolled in high school and/or by examination. For bachelor's degree recipients with no such acceleration credits, the average time-to-degree was 4.65 calendar years; for those with more than 9 acceleration credits, the average time-to-degree was 4.25 calendar years (table 4.7).

Majors and Curriculum

The knowledge and skills students bring to the labor market and community life derive, in considerable part, from what they study in their postsecondary careers. Choices of majors among traditional-age students have been volatile, and changes in majors among minority students have defied conventional wisdom. The extent of student participation in specific areas of the curriculum reveals the increased importance and benefits of academic momentum emanating from secondary school experience.

  • The proportion of all students earning bachelor's degrees in business and allied fields rose from 17 percent in the 1970s to 25 percent in the 1980s, then fell back to 17 percent in the 1990s (table 5.1). 
  • Conversely, the proportion of all students earning bachelor's degrees in education fell from 16 percent in the 1970s to 6 percent in the 1980s, then rebounded to 9 percent in the 1990s (table 5.1). 
  • Among African-American bachelor's degree recipients, the proportion earning degrees in engineering in the class of 1992 (12.6 percent) was nearly double that for the class of 1982 and six times that for the class of 1972. 
  • Conversely, the proportion of African-American bachelor's degree recipients earning degrees in education fell from 22 percent in the 1970s to 6 percent in the 1980s and 1990s (table 5.2). The proportion of Asian-American bachelor's degree recipients majoring in engineering fell from 20 percent in the class of 1982 to 11 percent in the class of 1992 (table 5.2).
  • With the exception of engineering among men and elementary education among women (where the differences were not statistically significant), psychology was the most popular major among bachelor's degree recipients of the class of 1992, claiming 10 percent of female bachelor's degrees, 5 percent of male bachelor's degrees, and 8 percent of all bachelor's degrees (table 5.3). 
  • Of community college students who earned associate's degrees, the proportion who earned those degrees in General Studies (the classic transfer curriculum) fell from 39 percent for the class of 1972 to 30 percent for the class of 1982, but rose to 43 percent for the class of 1992 (table 5.4). 
  • The proportion of women earning associate's degrees from community colleges in health sciences and services ranged between five and eight times that for men in all three cohorts. Conversely, the proportion of men earning associate's degrees from community colleges in engineering technology and other technical fields ranged between five and eight times that for women in all three cohorts (table 5.4). 
  • Among students who earned more than 30 credits and those who earned bachelor's degrees, there was no significant difference between the class of 1982 and the class of 1992 in the proportion earning any credits in calculus and advanced mathematics (table 5.5). 
  • One of the reasons there was no significant difference in the proportion of bachelor's degree recipients earning postsecondary credits in calculus and advanced mathematics between the class of 1982 and the class of 1992 may be that 23 percent of this group in the class of 1992 had already completed calculus courses in high school, compared with 15 percent for the class of 1982 (table 5.6).

Grades and Grading

While grades provide no information about what students have actually learned, they are the most accessible indicators of undergraduate academic performance, and are often subject to intense public arguments about whether students are being judged more leniently than in the past. To help put these arguments in perspective, the national transcript samples show that

  • Average postsecondary grade point averages (GPAs) for women and those who earned bachelor's degrees fell from the 1970s to the 1980s, then rose back to at least previous levels in the 1990s (table 6.1). 
  • The most notable change in the distribution of letter grades over the history of the three cohorts is the rise (from 4 percent for the class of 1972 to over 8 percent for the class of 1992) in the proportion of grades that were no-penalty Withdrawals (Ws) and No-Credit Repeats (NCRs) (table 6.1). Of all grades given in open door institutions (including community colleges), the proportion that were Ws and NCRs rose from 12 to 16 percent between the histories of the classes of 1982 and 1992 (table 6.3). 
  • For the class of 1992, the higher the number of grades of W and NCR on students' records, the lower the percentage of students who earned bachelor's degrees. For those with no Ws or NCRs, the bachelor's degree attainment rate was 68 percent; for those with 7 or more Ws and NCRs, the bachelor's degree attainment rate was 25 percent (table 6.2a).
  • Among bachelor's degree recipients in the class of 1992, those with no W or NCR grades completed their degrees in an average of 4.14 calendar years. With one or two grades of W and/or NCR, the average time-to-degree jumped to 4.45 calendar years, and with 7 or more Ws and NCRs, to 5.97 calendar years (table 6.2). 
  • In two of the three cohorts, students earning bachelor's degrees from highly selective institutions had higher undergraduate GPAs than those who earned degrees from selective institutions, and these students, in turn, had higher GPAs than students who earned degrees from nonselective institutions (table 6.4). 
  • The list of courses with the highest percentages of failures (penalty grades, Ws, and NCRs) is dominated by remedial English and precollegiate mathematics, other mathematics, introductory-level business and accounting, and major lower-division distribution courses such as U.S. history surveys, computer programming, general psychology, and introduction to fine arts (tables 6.6 and 6.7).

Remediation in Postsecondary Contexts

Remediation receives separate and special treatment because it sheds light on the interaction between secondary and postsecondary systems and on policy actions concerning the financing of education and the routing of underprepared students to community colleges. The presentation in Principal Indicators highlights not only the amount but the types of remediation at issue.

  • The proportion of all students who took at least one remedial course dropped from 51 percent in the class of 1982 to 42 percent in the class of 1992. This decline took place principally for students who started in 4-year colleges, where the remediation rate fell from 44 to 26 percent. At the same time, the proportion of students starting in community colleges who required at least one remedial course showed no significant change, remaining in the 61-63 percent range (table 7.1). 
  • The proportion of students requiring remediation in reading was 11 percent in both the class of 1982 and the class of 1992 (table 7.1). Remedial reading was the only one of five types or intensities of remediation that was directly related to senior-year test score quintile in both cohorts (table 7.2); and the proportion of students requiring remedial reading who earned no postsecondary credentials rose from 57 to 70 percent (table 7.3).

 


 
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Last Modified: 10/31/2008