Paths To Degree Completion From High School To College

Occasionally, I bring back to the blog some of the best research on how to prepare for and complete college. Here is a summary of Clifford Adelman”s 2006 seminal study.

The Toolbox Revisited is a follow-up to the 1999 Answers in the Tool Box. Using NELS 1988/2000 data, this new study followed students who were eighth graders in 1988, graduated high school in 1992, and set out to earn a bachelor’s degree.  Their educational results were tracked using their high school and college transcripts through December 2000.

The NELS 1988/2000 data primarily used in this report is data from the national grade-cohort longitudinal study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). This data set is able to determine which elements of formal schooling contribute to completion of a bachelor’s degree for students who attend a four-year college, including community college transfer students. The report identifies elements that accelerate or hinder academic momentum and degree completion.

Clifford Adelman,  was a Senior Research Analyst in the U.S. Department of Education ( now at the Institute For Higher Education Policy), and author of The Toolbox Revisited, shared the report’s assumptions and conclusions.  He emphasized that the study does not include students who never attend a bachelor’s degree-granting institution or who are older adults when they become college students. It does not include people who do not finish high school, earn a GED, or never enter a postsecondary institution.

The report does show that of all eighth graders in 1988:

  • 78% graduated on time in 1992 with a standard diploma;
  • 53% entered postsecondary education directly from high school;
  • 48% persisted from their first to their second year of postsecondary study; and
  • 35% earned a bachelor’s or associate degree by December 2000.

Of the students who were in the 12th grade in 1992 and subsequently attended a four-year college (including community college transfers), 66 percent finished a bachelor’s degree by age 25/26.

The NCES Graduation Rate Survey, shows a lower college graduation rate than Toolbox for several reasons, according to Adelman. The Survey includes older non-traditional students who are much less likely to complete a degree. As Adelman puts it, “The Graduation Rate Survey does not distinguish between your daughter and your brother-in-law; and however wonderful and smart a guy your brother-in-law may be, history has shown us time-and-again that his chances of finishing a degree are a fraction of your daughter’s chances.” The Graduation Rate Survey also does not include students who transfer in from either a community college or another four-year college; and it  follows only students who  were full-time students and entered n the fall term. “The Toolbox Revisited,” says Adelman, “shows you everybody.”

The students in the new Toolbox were very mobile, according to Adelman. More than half attended more than one school; 20% started in one four-year college and earned a bachelor’s degree from a different four-year college; and half of those crossed state lines to do so. Adelman emphasized that while the school a student attends is responsible for boosting the student’s momentum toward earning the degree, the student is also responsible.

Toolbox Revisited reinforces the conclusions of the original report but adds new information about what counts in bachelor’s degree completion:

  • The academic intensity of a high school curriculum counts even more than it did in the original Tool Box study, as do high school grades/class rank.
  • Senior year test scores count less, since the curriculum represents an investment of three to four years while the test scores represent three to four hours on a single day.
  • Not all high schools come close to offering a full curriculum portfolio (referred to as opportunity-to-learn). Minority students and those from families of low socio-economic status are disproportionately affected. For example, 45% of Latino students versus 59% of White students attended a high school that offered calculus.
  • It is not enough to count Carnegie Units in broad subject areas; it is necessary to know what is actually taught in particular courses and whether it matches the demands for entry-level courses in two- and four-year colleges.
  • Some demographic information is significant in predicting who completes a degree, such as parents’ attendance at college, race/ethnicity, family income and gender. Other demographic information does not matter, such as second language background, number of siblings, or immigrant status of parents.

There are also aspects of the high school curriculum that provide greater momentum to degree completion than others:

  • The combination of getting beyond Algebra 2 in math and taking three Carnegie Units in core laboratory science (biology, chemistry, physics) is more critical than taking three units in foreign language or Advanced Placement classes, even though Advanced Placement courses contribute to the highest level of academic intensity in a high school curriculum.
  • Of students who completed a high school curriculum at the highest levels of academic intensity in high school (the report measures 31 levels), 95% earned a bachelor’s degree.

There are also important aspects of college itself that provide academic momentum to degree completion:

  • Timing is important. Entering college or community college directly from high school makes a difference. For students who graduate in June, starting college after the following January dramatically reduces the rate of degree completion.
  • Place is less important. As long as students attend a four-year school at some time, where they start does not make a difference in degree completion. As Adelman puts it, “Kids who go to Princeton or Pomona are going to graduate, but that’s only five percent of traditional-age undergraduates.”
  • Students are more likely to graduate with a degree if they make a formal transfer between institutions without “swirling” among multiple colleges; they are more likely to graduate if they are continuously enrolled, even part-time and if their GPA trends upward.
  • Math continues to make a difference in college. Students who take college-level math as early as possible no matter what their eventual major are more likely to graduate with a degree.

The most important fuel for academic movement during the first year of college is finishing the year with twenty or more credits. “Twenty turned out to be the magic threshold in both the original Toolbox and Toolbox Revisited,” says Adelman. This includes credits earned during the summer, in dual-enrollment courses in high school or regular college courses. For students who cross the 20-credit line in the first year, 78% earned a degree.

There are also aspects of postsecondary education that do not bode well for degree attainment. Adelman says no-penalty course withdrawals and no-credit course repeats are a “death knell that is within the power of institutions to control.” For those who finish degrees, this is the major contribution to excessive time-to-degree. Changing majors does not affect degree completion, but it does affect how long it takes to earn a degree.

Financial aid was not a significant factor in whether students completed a postsecondary degree. The average time-to-degree was 4.58 calendar years (5 academic years), a little higher than the original study. Is time-to-degree an important issue? “Ask any family.” says Adelman, “The fact of earning a degree is far more important.”

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