Higher education is a vital component of the lives and careers of millions of Americans. As the source of many grants and loans for students, the federal government has an interest in understanding how Americans pay for college.
Since 1987, the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Department of Education, has kept track of the portfolio of grants, loans, personal savings, and other sources that students and families use to finance postsecondary education—uncovering important trends that influence college enrollment, completion, and labor market outcomes. This study, which now takes place every four years, is known as the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, or NPSAS.
RTI has been conducting NPSAS or one of its related longitudinal studies—the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study and the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study—since 1990.
Managing a Complex Study across Changes in Population and Technology
The most recent NPSAS, which covers the 2019-2020 academic year, includes approximately 150,000 students across 3,000 colleges and universities. We survey the students through both web and phone questionnaires, matching these data with records collected from institutions, data from federal financial aid systems, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and other sources.
Technological shifts, including the move to a web-based, mobile-optimized student survey, have enabled us to keep pace with our target population. We have also demonstrated flexibility in working with the colleges and universities in our sample, allowing them to submit data in multiple formats. Overall, the study has grown in depth and breadth, as the sample has increased and we collect data from more sources, all with an eye toward adding detail and improving the quality of results for our client.
As our partnership with NCES continues, we are adding and planning new dimensions for NPSAS. In NPSAS:16, we expanded data collected on military participation in higher education. In 2018, we launched a new round of institution data collection, providing more frequent information on students’ strategies for paying for college. In 2020, the traditional NPSAS data collection will be augmented with an additional sample of 250,000 undergraduate students (collection of student record and administrative data only) to create state-representative samples for undergraduate students overall and in public 2-year and public 4-year institutions.