You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A group of graduates celebrating

Getty Images

Only 60 percent of students who enrolled in college earned a degree or credential within eight years of graduating high school.

That’s one of the biggest takeaways from a new report the National Center for Education Statistics released Monday that analyzed the enrollment, completion and financial aid outcomes of students.

The researchers tracked the postsecondary educational outcomes of roughly 23,000 students beginning in 2009 when they were freshman in high school through 2021, when the cohort was eight years out from graduating high school.

Those 23,000 students represented the demographics of the millions of ninth graders across the country who were enrolled in public and private schools in 2009.

“A big goal of the study is to understand their educational and life outcomes,” Elise Christopher, director of the study, said. “We wanted to know how many had ended up enrolling in college and how many had completed and what kinds of degrees they’d received.”

By the time the study concluded in 2021, about 74 percent of students in the cohort had enrolled in college at some point. That number was down 10 percentage points compared to a previous iteration of the study which tracked students starting when they were high school sophomores in 2002.

“That’s not too surprising,” said Nate Johnson, founder and principal consultant of Postsecondary Analytics. “The 2002 cohort would have been hitting college age right around the time of the Great Recession when enrollment was at a record high.”

The 2009 cohort, however, graduated high school in 2013, when unemployment was falling and wages were rising.

“The alternatives to going to college looked a lot better during that period,” Johnson said. “You can’t blame people for deciding that going into the labor force right away is a better value when the jobs are available.”

Of the students in the 2009 cohort who enrolled in college, 8 percent earned a postsecondary certificate as their highest credential; 10 percent earned an associate’s degree as their highest credential; 35 percent earned a bachelor’s degree as their highest credential, and 7 percent earned a graduate degree as their highest credential.

Income, Race Influence Outcomes

The data also offered more insight into the socioeconomic characteristics of those different groups of students.

The more money a student's family made, the more likely they were to enroll in college. About 60 percent of students whose families made $35,000 or less per year enrolled in college, while 82 percent of students from families who made more than $115,000 per year enrolled, according to the study. 

The outcome data also shows a strong relationship between family income and college attainment. Fifty-two percent of students from families with annual earnings at or below $35,000 had not completed any postsecondary credential by 2021, whereas nearly 55 percent of students whose families earned more than $115,000 held a bachelor’s degree and 11 percent held a graduate degree.

“The students who come from low-income backgrounds want to do better than their parents by going to college,” said Iris Palmer, director for community colleges with the education policy program at New America, a left-leaning think tank. “Even with all the financial aid they’re eligible for—and they are generally eligible for quite a bit—it’s not enough to offset the economic insecurities they’re facing as they’re trying to make their way through college.”

And it was nonwhite students who were most likely to receive income-based financial aid, according to the report. While white students were more likely to receive a federal student loan than a Pell Grant, Asian, Black and Hispanic students were all more likely to receive a Pell Grant than a loan.

“Students who come from lower income backgrounds are more likely to face a financial crisis that gets them off track,” said Martin Kurzweil, vice president of educational transformation at Ithaka S+R. “Students from lower-income backgrounds are also more likely to attend institutions that are less resourced, so they’re more likely to have less access to academic and outside-the-classroom supports that can help make a difference in completion.”

Asian students and White students were far more likely to enroll in college (86 percent and 75 percent, respectively) compared to students of other races.

Meanwhile, some 65 percent of Hispanic students ended up enrolling in college; about 59 percent of Black students, 58 percent of American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and 47 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders enrolled after high school.

“Even controlling for income, those categories of students are more likely to attend a less-resourced institution,” said Kurzweil, who noted that the legacy of racial segregation is still present in higher education structures. “The evidence in many formats continues to confirm that there are socioeconomic dimensions to the college completion problem and there are also racial dimensions to it.”

Of those students who completed college within eight years of graduating high school, Asian students earned the largest percentage of bachelor’s (56 percent) and graduate degrees (10.7 percent) followed by white students, with 41 percent earning a bachelor’s degree and 9 percent earning a graduate degree.

And while there wasn’t a big difference between students who attended rural, urban or suburban high schools, 57 percent of students who attended a private high school earned a bachelor’s degree compared to 35.5 percent who went to a public school.

The study also tracked which discipline students studied once they got to college. Despite the push for STEM education in recent years, 81 percent of students completed their highest credential in a non-STEM field.

That’s not necessarily surprising, given the rigor and selectivity of some STEM programs, Kurzweil said.

“We’ve seen this play out on a micro-level. Students start on a STEM path but are weeded out by first-year courses that aren’t designed for student success,” he said. “In some ways, those weed-out efforts are strategies to deal with abundance of demand for a limited number of spots. What ends up happening is that those folks who had a dream of becoming a nurse, for example, just swirl. They keep not getting into those programs and end up not completing at all.”

Study Lacks Student Insights

The NCES first started tracking students’ post-secondary outcomes over prolonged periods of time in 1972, and the agency has already started tracking a cohort of students who were ninth graders in 2022.

The newly released report is the fifth longitudinal study of its kind, but it’s missing a lot of context from students that may explain why they did or didn’t finish college.

While NCES researchers planned on gathering that information by surveying the 23,000 students periodically over the 12-year study—which they did multiple times during the first several years of the study—the NCES, which is overseen by the U.S. Education Department, didn’t have enough money to do any more surveys after 2016, according to Christopher, the director of the study.

“The budget for our surveys has been pretty flat for the past ten-plus years,” she said. That started around 2013, when Congress ordered mandatory domestic spending cuts for federal agencies in a move that alarmed researchers at the time. “We’ve just never gotten budget increases, which is sort of like a passive cut because inflation has been happening all along.”

Instead, researchers continued tracking the educational outcomes of the 2009 cohort by taking information the students had already provided and tracking them through the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse and the National Student Loan Data System, which is managed by the Education Department.

“What we learned was that a lot of students did not complete postsecondary education. Without the survey we lack that important insight on why,” Christopher said. “What this really underscores is that we need a mechanism to understand what else they were doing at the same time and what else was putting pressure on them while they were in college.”

Although work and family responsibilities are some of the most common reasons students stop out, Christopher said that without the surveys, she can only speculate.

“We made an attempt to use the resources we had available to get the data we could in a way that didn’t burden the students. We didn’t have to bother them with a survey and were able to do it in a passive way. We thought it would fill in a lot of those gaps,” she said. “It was worthwhile, but what we learned is that we really need to talk to the students.”

Education experts said that even without the surveys, the data’s enormous scope is still valuable to informing policies aimed at boosting college completion.

“It’s definitely a loss that they weren’t able to do the survey, but it’s by no means a total loss,” said Kurzweil, the Ithaka S+R researcher. “The good thing is that following up with students is still possible with additional funding.”

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct the demographic data about the students who enrolled in college.)

Next Story

Written By

More from Academics