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Note 2: The Current Population Survey (CPS) (2005)

The Current Population Survey (CPS) is a monthly survey of a nationally representative sample of all U.S. households. The survey is conducted in approximately 50,000 households that are selected scientifically from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The population surveyed is referred to as the civilian, noninstitutional population. Members of the Armed Forces, inmates in correctional institutions, and patients in long-term medical or custodial facilities are not included in the sample. The CPS has been conducted for more than 50 years. The Bureau of the Census conducts the survey for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, asking a knowledgeable adult household member (known as the “household respondent”) to answer all the questions on all of the month’s questionnaires for all members of the household.

The CPS collects data on the social and economic characteristics of the civilian, noninstitutional population, including information on income, education, and participation in the labor force. However, the CPS does not collect all this information every month. Each month a “basic” CPS questionnaire is used to collect data about participation in the labor force of each household member, age 15 or older, in every sampled household. In addition, different supplemental questionnaires are administered each month to collect information on other topics.

In March and October of each year, the supplementary questionnaires contain some questions of relevance to education policy. The Annual Social and Economic Supplement, or March CPS Supplement, is a primary source of detailed information on income and work experience in the United States. The labor force and work experience data from this survey are used to profile the U.S. labor market and to make employment projections. Data from this survey are also used to generate the annual Population Profile of the United States, reports on geographical mobility, educational attainment, and detailed analyses of wage rates, earnings, and poverty status. The October Supplement contains basic annual school enrollment data for preschool, elementary and secondary, and postsecondary students, as well as educational background information needed to produce dropout estimates on an annual basis. In addition to the basic questions about education, interviewers ask supplementary questions about school enrollment for all household members age 3 or older.

CPS interviewers initially used printed questionnaires. However, since 1994, the Census Bureau has used Computer-Assisted Personal and Telephone Interviewing (CAPI and CATI) to collect data. Both technologies allow interviewers to use a complex questionnaire and increase consistency by reducing interviewer error. Further information on the CPS can be found at


Employment Status

Indicator 17 uses data from the March and Annual Social and Economic CPS Supplements, which include questions on employment of adults in the previous week, to determine employment status. Respondents could report that they were employed (either full or part time), unemployed (looking for work or on layoff), or not in the labor force (due to being retired, having unpaid employment, or some other reason). Employed respondents were further classified as either full-time or part-time employees. Respondents who reported working 50 or more weeks in the past year and typically worked 35 or more hours per week were classified as full-time employees. Respondents who reported working fewer weeks or fewer hours per week were classified as part-time employees because they did not work full time.

Family Income

Indicator 20 uses data on family income that are collected as part of the October CPS to measure a student’s economic standing. The October CPS determines family income from a single question asked of the household respondent. Family income includes all monetary income from all sources (including jobs, business, interest, rent, and social security payments) over a 12-month period. The income of nonrelatives living in the household is excluded, but the income of all family members age 15 or older (age 14 or older before 1989), including those temporarily living away, is included.

Families in the bottom 20 percent of all family incomes are classified as low income; families in the top 20 percent of all family incomes are classified as high income; and families in the 60 percent between these two categories are classified as middle income. The table on the next page shows the current dollar amount of the breakpoints between low and middle income and between middle and high income for the subpopulation of the CPS population used in indicator 20: high school completers ages 16–24. For example, low income for this subpopulation in 2003 is defined as the range between $0 and $16,394; middle income is defined as the range between $16,394 and $78,666; and high income is defined as $78,666 or more.

Status Dropout Rate

Indicator 19 reports status dropout rates by race/ethnicity. The status rate is one of a number of rates reporting on high school dropout and completion behavior in the United States. Status dropout rates measure the percentage of individuals within a given age range who are not enrolled in high school and who lack a high school credential, irrespective of when they dropped out. Since they measure the extent of the dropout problem for the sampled population, status dropout rates can be used to estimate the need for further education and training for dropouts in that population. Status dropout rates should not be confused with event dropout rates, which measure the proportion of students who drop out of high school in a given year, and which have been reported in previous The Condition of Education volumes (NCES 2004–077, indicator 16. See also NCES 2005–040).

Indicator 19 uses CPS data to estimate the percentage of the civilian, noninstitutionalized young people ages 16 though 24 who are out of high school and who have not earned a high school credential (either a diploma or equivalency credential such as a General Educational Development certificate). Status dropout rates include individuals who never attended school and immigrants who did not complete the equivalent of a high school education in their home country as dropouts. The inclusion of these individuals is appropriate since the status rate is designed to report the percentage of youth and young adults in the United States who lack what is now considered a basic level of education. However, counting as dropouts individuals who may have never attended a U.S. school means the status rate should not be used as an indicator of the performance of U.S. schools.

The numerator of the status dropout rate for a given year is the number of individuals ages 16 through 24 who, as of October of that year, had not completed high school and were not currently enrolled in school. The denominator is the total number of 16- through 24-year-olds in the United States in October of that year.

The CPS October Education and School Enrollment Supplement items used to identify status dropouts include (1) “Is . . . attending or enrolled in regular school?” and (2) What is the highest level of school . . . has completed or the highest degree . . . has received?” See the Educational Attainment section below for details of how the second question has changed from 1972 to 2002. Beginning in 1986, the U.S. Census Bureau instituted new editing procedures for cases with missing data on school enrollment (the first question listed above). This was done in an effort to improve data quality. The effect of the editing changes was evaluated for data from 1986 by applying both the old and new editing procedures. The effect was an increase in the number of students enrolled in school and a slightly lowered status dropout rate (12.2 percent based on the old procedures and 12.1 percent based on the new ones). The difference in the two rates was not statistically significant. While a change in the procedures occurred in 1986, the new procedures are reflected beginning in 1987 in indicator 19.

Educational Attainment

Data from CPS questions on educational attainment are used in indicators 16, 17, 19, 20, and 23. From 1972 to 1991, two CPS questions provided data on the number of years of school completed: (1) “What is the highest grade . . . ever attended?” and (2) “Did . . . complete it?” An individual’s educational attainment was considered to be his or her last fully completed year of school. Individuals who completed 12 years were deemed to be high school graduates, as were those who began but did not complete the first year of college. Respondents who completed 16 or more years were counted as college graduates.

Beginning in 1992, the CPS combined the two questions into the following question: “What is the highest level of school . . . completed or the highest degree . . . received?” This change means that some data collected before 1992 are not strictly comparable with data collected from 1992 onward and that care must be taken when making such comparisons. The new question revised the response categories from the highest grade completed to the highest level of schooling or degree completed. In the revised response categories, several of the lower levels are combined into a single summary category such as “1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grades.” Several new categories are used, including “12th grade, no diploma”; “High school graduate, high school diploma, or the equivalent”; and “Some college but no degree.” College degrees are now listed by type, allowing for a more accurate description of educational attainment. The new question emphasizes credentials received rather than the last grade level attended or completed if attendance did not lead to a credential. The new categories include the following:

  • High school graduate, high school diploma, or the equivalent (e.g., GED)

  • Some college but no degree

  • Associate’s degree in college, occupational/vocational program

  • Associate’s degree in college, academic program

  • Bachelor’s degree (e.g., B.A., A.B., B.S.)

  • Master’s degree (e.g., M.A., M.S., M.Eng., M.Ed., M.S.W., M.B.A.)

  • Professional school degree (e.g., M.D., D.D.S., D.V.M., LL.B., J.D.)

  • Doctorate degree (e.g., Ph.D., Ed.D.)

High School Completion

The pre-1992 questions about educational attainment did not specifically consider high school equivalency certificates (GEDs). Consequently, an individual who attended 10th grade, dropped out without completing that grade, and who subsequently received a high school equivalency credential would not have been counted as completing 12th grade. The new question counts these individuals as if they are high school completers. Since 1988, an additional question has also asked respondents if they have a high school degree or the equivalent, such as a GED. People who respond “yes” are classified as high school completers. Before 1988, the number of individuals who earned a high school equivalency certificate was small relative to the number of high school graduates, so that the subsequent increase from including equivalency certificate recipients in the total number of people counted as “high school completers” was small in the years immediately after the change was made.

Before 1992, the CPS considered individuals who completed 12th grade to be high school graduates. The revised question added the response category “12th grade, no diploma.” Individuals who select this response are not counted as graduates. Historically, the number of individuals in this category has been small.

College Completion

Some students require more than 4 years to earn an undergraduate degree, so some researchers are concerned that the completion rate, based on the pre-1992 category “4th year or higher of college completed,” overstates the number of respondents with a bachelor’s degree (or higher). In fact, however, the completion rates among those ages 25–29 in 1992 and 1993 were similar to the completion rates for those in 1990 and 1991, before the change in the question’s wording. Thus, there appears to be good reason to conclude that the change has not affected the completion rates reported in The Condition of Education 2005.

Some College

Based on the question used in 1992 and in subsequent surveys, an individual who attended college for less than a full academic year would respond “some college but no degree.” Before 1992, the appropriate response would have been “attended first year of college and did not complete it”; the calculation of the percentage of the population with 1–3 years of college excluded these individuals. With the new question, such respondents are placed in the “some college but no degree” category. Thus, the percentage of individuals with some college might be larger than the percentage with 1–3 years of college because “some college” includes those who have not completed an entire year of college, whereas “1–3 years of college” does not include these people. Therefore, it is not appropriate to make comparisons between the percentage of those with “some college but no degree” using the post-1991 question and the percentage of those who completed “1–3 years of college” using the two pre-1992 questions.

In The Condition of Education, the “some college” category for years preceding 1992 includes only the responses “1–3 years of college.” After 1991, the “some college” category includes those who responded “some college but no degree,” “Associate’s degree in college, occupational/vocational program,” and “Associate’s degree in college, academic program.” The effect of this change of the “some college category” is indicated by the fact that in 1992, 48.9 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds reported completing some college or more compared with 45.3 percent in 1991 (see NCES 2002–025, table 25-2). The 3.6 percent difference is statistically significant. Some of the increase may be due to individuals who have completed less than 1 year of postsecondary education who in years preceding 1992 would not have responded that they completed “some college.”

Another potential difference in the “some college” category is how individuals who have completed a certificate or some other type of award other than a degree respond to the new questions about their educational attainment introduced in 1992. Some may answer “some college, no degree,” while others may indicate only high school completion, and others may equate their certificate with one of the types of associate’s degrees. No information is available on the tendencies of individuals with a postsecondary credential other than a bachelor’s or higher degree to respond to the new attainment question introduced in 1992.

Dollar value (in current dollars) at the breakpoint between low- and middle- and between middle- and high-income categories of family income: October 1972-2003

Dollar value (in current dollars) at the breakpoint between low- and middle- and between middle- and high-income categories of family income: October 1972-2003

–Not available. Data on family income were not available in 1974.

NOTE: Some estimates are revised slightly from those published in NCES 2004-077 primarily because for indicator 20 the population is high school completers ages 16-24 of the survey year instead of the entire CPS population.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). The Condition of Education 2003 (NCES 2004-077), supplemental note 2 and previously unpublished tabulation (January 2005). Data from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey (CPS), October Supplement 1972-2003.

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