In American culture, the start of college conjures an image of a high school graduate arriving on a scenic campus for four years of study and dormitory life. However, this image no longer captures the complex and diverse experience of college in the United States.
Of the approximately 4 million people who start college each year, the majority do not fit the traditional definition of an 18-year old college student pursuing a bachelor’s degree full time. In reality, many beginning students are older, with years of work experience. Others seek a degree after serving in the military. A majority are pursuing certificates and associate’s degrees. Many students change direction during college—exploring different majors, transferring schools, or leaving college altogether.
Furthermore, students are financing college through a patchwork of earnings, savings, loans, scholarships, and grants, and other sources.
The decision makers who craft student financial aid policy, as well as the institutions who seek to ensure student success, need an accurate and timely picture of college experiences to inform their work.
Collecting Data on the College Journey for Thousands of Students Nationwide
To better understand the varied origins and journeys of college students, the U.S. Department of Education collects data on a cohort of students who start college in the same year, and then follows the participants through college and into the labor market with interviews two and five years later.
Since 1990, RTI has led this study—known as the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, or BPS. Currently we are conducting a study of the fourth BPS cohort, which consists of 35,000 students who started college in the 2011-2012 academic year. Students were interviewed in 2012 and 2014, and will be surveyed once more in 2017. Finally, in 2018, transcripts, financial aid information and other records for the students will be collected to complete the picture of their journey.
With decades of experience conducting national-scale education surveys, we are uniquely suited to manage BPS for the National Center for Education Statistics. Specialists in methodology and data collection work alongside our postsecondary education experts to gather and communicate results. And, we regularly review and update our approach to reflect changes in survey science, technology, and our target population to ensure reliable results.
We began offering BPS cohorts a web-based survey in 2004, and have since optimized it for mobile devices. As the target population shifted away from land-line phones, we updated our methods for finding and keeping track of respondents. These and other changes help provide accurate and representative data to the leaders who set national education policy and manage schools and policies.
Informing Public Conversations on College Funding, Enrollment, and Success
Higher education is frequently at the center of public debates. Parents and students are concerned about the rising cost of college and their ability to repay student loans. For-profit colleges have proliferated, raising new questions about the cost and benefits of college. In its 26 years, BPS has grown into an indispensable resource for education leaders, policymakers, and researchers looking for national data on first-time college students.
The longitudinal nature of BPS makes it useful for anyone looking for information that tracks results for people, rather than institutions. For example, colleges and universities know how many students transfer in or out, but not what happens to them when they leave. BPS helps shed light on patterns and trends in student transfers. It is the main source of information on students’ attempts to transfer credits between community colleges and four-year universities.
In addition, BPS collects data on enrollment patterns, degree attainment, transition to work, and work experiences. By capturing financial aid from both federal and non-federal sources, BPS helps policymakers understand the complexities of how students finance college.
Some of the major findings we have gathered from BPS in the past year include the following:
- More than half of first-time college students are pursuing certificates or associate’s degrees.
- Fifteen percent of 2011–12 first-time college students transferred to another institution within three years.
- Students who delay college enrollment by more than a year are more likely to leave their first institution without enrolling somewhere else (44 percent vs. 24 percent).
- The percentage of students who are the first in their immediate family to attend college varies widely by institution type—from 9 percent of students at private, nonprofit, four-year institutions, to 32 percent of students who first enrolled in a for-profit institution.
These and other insights have become part of the national discussion about postsecondary education. Thanks to BPS, the education community has a better sense of who students are and where college takes them. Through future studies, we will keep abreast of postsecondary students’ changing characteristics and needs.