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Note 2: The Current Population Survey (CPS) (2007)

The Current Population Survey (CPS) is a monthly survey of a nationally representative sample of all U.S. households. The survey’s scientifically selected sample consists of approximately 50,000 households 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 U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 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 also ask 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

Indicators 19 and 20 use data from the March CPS and its supplement, 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).

Indicator 45 uses data from the October CPS and its supplement, which also includes questions on employment of adults in the previous week to determine employment status. Employed persons include those 16 years and over who, during the reference week, (1) did any work at all (at least 1 hour) as paid employees, or (2) were not working but who had jobs or businesses from which they were temporarily absent because of vacation, illness, bad weather, childcare problems, maternity or paternity leave, labor-management dispute, job training, or other family or personal reasons, whether or not they were paid for the time off or were seeking other jobs.

Hours Worked per Week

Indicator 45 presents data on the number of hours worked per week. This estimate is the number of hours a respondent worked in all jobs in the week previous to the time of survey. The population for this variable includes any employed person who also worked in the week previous to the time of survey. The sum of the categories may not equal the total percentage employed because those who were employed, but did not work in the previous week, were excluded.

Family Income

Indicator 25 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.

In indicator 25, family income of a recent high school graduate is defined as the income of the household where the graduate has membership. A household is defined as all individuals whose usual place of residence at the time of the interview is the sample unit. The following considerations guide the determination of household members:

  • Persons staying in the sample housing unit at the time of the interview: Persons for whom the household is their usual place of residence are included in the household membership. Persons who are living in the household temporarily (such as students) and who have living quarters held elsewhere are not considered part of the household, unless they are living with their spouse or children.

  • Persons who usually live in the sample housing unit and are absent at the time of the interview: Individuals who are temporarily absent and who have no other usual place of residence are classified as household members even if they are not present in the household during the survey week. If such persons are away temporarily attending school, they are considered part of the household unless they are living with their spouse or children.

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 used in indicator 25. For example, low income for families in 2005 is defined as the range from $0 to $16,800; middle income is defined as the range from $16,800 to $80,700; and high income is defined as $80,700 or more.

Median Earnings

Indicator 20 uses data on earnings that are collected as part of the March CPS. The March CPS collects information on earnings from individuals who were full-year workers (individuals who were employed 50 or more weeks in the previous year) and full-time workers (which refers to those who were usually employed 35 or more hours per week). Earnings include all wage and salary income. Unlike mean earnings, median earnings does not change or changes very little in response to extreme observations.


Over time, the CPS has had different response options for race/ethnicity. From 1972 through 1988, the response options were limited to White, Black, Hispanic, and Other. From 1989 through 1995, the response options included White, Black, American Indian/Aleut Eskimo, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and Other. From 1996 through 2002, the response options included White, Black, American Indian/Aleut Eskimo, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic. From 2003 through the present, the response options included White, Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic and allowed respondents to select more than one race category. Race categories presented in The Condition of Education 2007 exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity; thus, the race/ethnicity categories are mutually exclusive. Indicators 5, 19, 20, 23, 25, 27, and 45 present data by race/ethnicity using CPS data. See supplemental note 1 for more information on race/ethnicity.

Enrolled in School

In indicator 20, which presents the racial/ethnic distribution of public school students, the data for 1979 and 1980 are missing because the data for the variable “attending school” were judged unacceptable due to an error in the design of the questionnaire; therefore, the records are all blank.

Status Dropout Rate

Indicator 23 reports status dropout rates by race/ethnicity. The status dropout 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. Because 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 a previous volume of The Condition of Education (NCES 2004-077, indicator 16; see also NCES 2005-046).

Indicator 23 uses the October CPS data to estimate the status dropout rate, or the percentage of civilian, noninstitutionalized young people ages 16 through 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 [GED]). Status dropout rates count as dropouts individuals who never attended school and immigrants who did not complete the equivalent of a high school education in their home country. The inclusion of these individuals is appropriate because the status dropout 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, the status dropout rate should not be used as an indicator of the performance of U.S. schools, because it counts as dropouts individuals who may have never attended a U.S. school.

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 individuals ages 16 through 24 in the United States in October of that year.

The CPS October 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 ? completed or the highest degree ? received?” See the Educational Attainment section, below, for details on how the second question changed from 1972 to 1992. Beginning in 1986, the Census Bureau instituted new editing procedures for cases with missing data on school enrollment, i.e., missing data relating to the first October supplement item, above. This was done in an effort to improve data quality. The effect of the editing changes was evaluated by applying both the old and new editing procedures to the data from 1986. The effect of the changes 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 the change in the procedures occurred in 1986, the new procedures are reflected in indicator 23 beginning in 1987.

Youth Neither Enrolled nor Working

The March CPS Supplement added questions to collect information on the educational enrollment of all respondents, as well as their employment status in 1986. To construct the variable for indicator 19, all youth ages 16–19 were categorized as being in one of four categories: enrolled in an education institution but not working; working but not enrolled; both enrolled and working; or neither enrolled nor working. Respondents who were unemployed and looking for work as well as those who were unemployed and not in the labor force (i.e., not looking for work) were both considered not working.

Educational Attainment

Data from CPS questions on educational attainment are used in indicators 19, 20, 25, and 27. 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 revision changed the response categories from highest grade completed to highest level of schooling or degree completed. In the revised response categories, several of the lower grade 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. 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 caused by 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 2007.

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,” thereby excluding those individuals from the calculation of the percentage of the population with 1–3 years of college. 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 them. 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 to 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 indicator 27, table 27-2). The 3.6 percent difference is statistically significant. Some of the increase between 1991 and 1992 may be the result of individuals who completed less than 1 year of postsecondary education responding differently to the “completed some college” category; that is, including themselves in the category in 1992, but not including themselves in the category in 1991.

Another potential difference in the “some college” category is how individuals who have completed a certificate or other type of award other than a degree respond to the new questions introduced in 1992 about their educational attainment. Some may answer “some college, no degree”; others may indicate only high school completion; and still 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.

Parental Education

Parents’ education is defined as either the highest educational attainment of the two parents who reside with the student or, if only one parent is in the residence, the highest educational attainment of that parent. When neither parent resides with the student, it is defined as the highest educational attainment of the householder. Indicator 25 presents data by parents’ education.

Dollar value (in current dollars) at the breakpoint between low- and middle- and between middle- and high-income categories of family income: October 1972–2005

Dollar value (in current dollars) at the breakpoint between low- and middle- and between middle- and high-income categories of family income: October 1972-2005

—Not available.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October Supplement, 1972–2005.

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