Among the main themes to emerge from meetings of the Education Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education: whether students -- and not just the so-called "traditional" ones -- are making sufficient progress toward a degree. A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal entity that collects data for the Department of Education, provides a first glimpse at what type of progress recent students are making.
"Persistence and Attainment of 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students: After Three Years," looks at a national sample of 19,000 first-time students who entered colleges and universities in fall 2003. Those included in the study are a subset of those who were interviewed as part of the larger longitudinal survey of postsecondary student aid.
The data are preliminary, as the report notes, because student progress is measured after three years -- in this case ending in spring 2006. Students are surveyed again at a later time to fill out the degree picture. This is the third such measure of three-year degree progress and attainment, the last of which began in 1995-6. And while NCES expanded on some of the earlier categories, the overall data show little variation from the last measure.
Of all students in the sample, nearly 16 percent had already earned a degree (or certificate) within three years and either were still enrolled or had concluded their college work. The vast majority of those students had earned either certificates or associate degrees, with a tiny fraction attaining a bachelor's degree.
Slightly more than half of the overall group did not yet have a degree but remained in higher education. Students attending private and public nonprofit institutions (77 percent each) were much more likely to fall into this category than those enrolled in a for-profit college (34 percent).
Roughly one-third of the members of the entire cohort had no degree and were no longer enrolled after the three-year period. More than half of students who entered a two-year for-profit had left academe without a degree, compared to 45 percent of students at a two-year public and 40 percent of those at a two-year private nonprofit institution.
"What we're showing here is that a strong majority of students are retained somewhere, which is very different than what you hear sometimes," said Lutz Berkner, one of the report's authors and a senior research associate at MPR Associates, an education research and consulting firm.
The survey differentiates between recent high school graduates and adult learners. Among the entering students who were 2003 high school graduates, enrolled full-time and who planned to earn a bachelor's degree, 83 percent had not yet attained one but were still enrolled, while just 12 percent had left college without getting a degree. Students in this group, as Berkner points out, are the ones many think of as typical freshmen -- and as the most likely to stay until finishing a degree.
Not surprisingly, across the board, students who entered with the stated intention of earning a bachelor's degree were most likely to be in the "enrolled without a degree" category after three years, and least likely to have left higher education without earning a degree (in part because many associate degree or certificate students already have completed their educations.)
Financial means and age of student also factor into the outcomes. Half of students considered financially independent hadn't received degrees from their four-year institutions and were no longer enrolled as of 2006. More than four in 10 had no degree but were still in higher education. The dropout numbers are much lower for students considered dependents -- and those dependents whose families are in the higher income brackets are more likely to be on track for a degree than those in the lower categories.
Also not surprisingly, as student age at the time of enrollment rises, so too does the likelihood of leaving academe without a degree. Roughly 25 percent of students who were 19 years or younger were not enrolled and hadn't gotten a degree after three years, compared with double that percentage of those who were 20 or older.
The report also looks at transfer status. Students who changed colleges were less likely to drop out of higher education without a degree than those who did not transfer. Among students who started at a public two-year college and then transferred to another institution, 18 percent had their certificate or associate degrees and were still enrolled at some institution; 62 percent had not yet gotten any degree and were still enrolled at some postsecondary institution.
Clifford Adelman, senior associate for the Institute for Higher Education Policy and a longtime researcher at the Education Department, said that while the three-year count remains problematic for drawing broad conclusions about progress-toward-degree trends, this NCES report is more useful than previous ones because it distinguishes between transfer and non-transfer students, and between recent high school graduates and older, financially independent students. (Adelman has also argued that the six-year graduation clock is too short, given the movement that occurs with many of today's students.)
"This is a start on understanding how different these populations are," Adelman said. "We're seeing that students are persistent -- those that transfer often come back later."