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The High School Longitudinal Study of 2009

Evaluating how high school experiences impact students’ postsecondary trajectories


The years that students spend in secondary education represent a pivotal and transitional time. High schoolers make complex choices about if they will attend college, join the workforce, or pursue a different path. These students not only have their own ideas but also hear diverse perspectives from their parents, counselors, teachers, and administrators.

To best support future students’ success and strengthen education communities, the U.S. federal government needed to understand student (1) experiences during high school and (2) transitions from secondary to postsecondary education. Researchers, education leaders, and policy makers needed data around how high school academic and life experiences affect decisions about postsecondary education; these experts also needed data to better support high schoolers as they plan for their lives after graduation.

To obtain these data, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) chose RTI International to conduct the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09). This study provided an in-depth examination of how student experiences and choices in high school equipped students for college, work, and lives as adults in their communities. As part of several ED-conducted longitudinal studies, HSLS:09 continued a rich history of uniquely valuable, in-depth studies of high school students’ educational experiences. RTI began data collection for the successor longitudinal cohort study, the High School & Beyond Longitudinal Study of 2022, fall 2023.

Surveying Thousands of Students to Better Understand Postsecondary Pathways

HSLS:09 investigated the relationships among educational attainment, academic achievement, and occupational outcomes. RTI began the HSLS:09 initial data collection phase in 2009, surveying more than 23,000 9th graders from 944 U.S. schools. We utilized in-school and out-of-school computer-based surveys and computer-assisted telephone interviews to learn about students’ unique backgrounds; experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and academic attainment.

Survey responses from parents, teachers, administrators, and school counselors also provided context on family backgrounds, classroom experiences, and their students’ postsecondary preparation. The study introduced innovations in data collection and also supplied new, insightful information about college decision-making and about students’ and parents’ knowledge of financing a college education. These surveys, combined with data from student surveys and assessments, provided valuable insights into the choices students made and influences on those decisions.

After the initial phase of surveys and assessments, RTI launched several rounds of follow-up data collection. In 2012, the original cohort of students (most of whom were then in 11th grade) was surveyed again to gather information about students’ choices concerning postsecondary education and the workforce. Students and parents were contacted during summer/fall 2013 to provide updates on students’ high school status and plans following high school. We collected high school transcripts in 2013 to learn about students’ experiences related to taking courses.

In 2016, we surveyed students again—3 years after the original cohort of students had graduated from high school—to (1) learn about their ongoing postsecondary education and gained work experiences and (2) understand how their high school experiences led them to their current path. In addition, we collected transcripts and other administrative data (e.g., financial aid received) from postsecondary institutions that the sampled students attended.

The large, nationally representative sample from HSLS:09 illustrates how the STEM pipeline develops from high school into college and unveils important perspectives on the STEM experiences of students from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The data provide a foundation for leaders in the education and policy communities to work toward more equitable outcomes for all students.

Mapping the Journey From Secondary to Postsecondary Education and Beyond

STEM skills are becoming increasingly important for students to succeed in a fiercely competitive workforce. HSLS:09 helps researchers better understand the STEM trajectories of high schoolers and the diverse factors that equip students with the necessary STEM background to prepare them for their postsecondary future and success beyond.

Data from HSLS:09 provide secondary and postsecondary leaders with a deeper understanding of the factors that influence decisions around high schoolers’ futures; additionally, these data will inform future secondary environments, practices, and policies. HSLS:09 included representative samples of students from 10 states, giving policy makers better information about student trajectories within their state compared to other states and to the nation as a whole.