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Descriptive Summary of 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students: 5 Years Later


The Educational Persistence and Attainment of 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students After Five Years

Introduction

During the 1989-90 academic year, approximately 2.6 million students enrolled in postsecondary education for the first time.(1) A sample of these students was selected for the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study.(2) The sampled students were interviewed three times: at the end of their first year in 1990, in the spring of 1992, and in the spring of 1994. This essay describes the educational experiences of these first-time beginners over the 5-year period, focusing on their persistence in postsecondary education and their attainment of any degrees or certificates at the baccalaureate level or below.

There are many different ways of measuring persistence and attainment.(3) In this essay the subject will be approached from four different perspectives: 1) overall persistence in postsecondary education; 2) institutional retention; 3) persistence toward degree objectives; and 4) persistence toward the bachelor's degree at 4-year institutions. Each of these approaches results in different levels of persistence and attainment rates.

The first perspective presented is this essay examines the overall experience of the beginning students in postsecondary education as a whole. It looks at whether the students attained any type of degree anywhere or were still enrolled anywhere without a degree in 1994, no matter where they started or whether they changed institutions or degree objectives. It addresses the issue of student persistence in the broadest sense by asking what proportion of beginning students had completed or were still attempting to complete a postsecondary program within the 5 years after they had started.

The second approach examines the experience of the students only in relation to the first institution attended. It addresses the issue of institutional retention by asking what proportion of beginners remained at the same institution to complete a degree or certificate. Students who do not remain there may either leave postsecondary education permanently or transfer to some other institution before completing a degree program. In either case the students have not been retained at the first institution, but by transferring elsewhere they continue to persist in postsecondary education. Because many students do transfer before attaining a degree, institutional rates of retention tend to understate levels of student persistence.

A third approach is to examine persistence and attainment in relation to a particular degree objective, whether the student is working toward a bachelor's degree, an associate's degree, or a vocational certificate. This perspective is useful when the level of the degree that the students are seeking is not the highest undergraduate degree offered at the institution that they are attending at the time. This is especially common at community colleges, where students may be taking courses toward either a bachelor's degree or a vocational certificate rather than an associate's degree.

The fourth approach presented in this essay is to focus specifically on the students with a bachelor's degree objective who are beginning at 4-year institutions and to trace their progress towards the bachelor's degree on a year-by-year basis. This perspective is useful in determining what proportion of beginning students at 4-year colleges follow a path of continuous enrollment towards the bachelor's degree and how long it takes them to achieve their objective.

Overall Student Attainment and Persistence in Postsecondary Education After 5 Years

One of the most important distinctions in studying persistence and attainment is the highest undergraduate degree offered at the institution in which the student enrolls, because the time spent at the institution reflects the normal duration of the degree programs. Less-than-2-year institutions only offer certificates, usually in vocational programs that can be completed in less than one year. Two-year institutions offer associate's degrees that can typically be completed in two years of full-time study, but often offer shorter certificate programs as well. Four-year institutions primarily offer bachelor's degrees, but some also offer shorter associate's and certificate programs. In this report, the institutions are categorized into the 4-year, 2-year, and less-than-2-year sectors according to their highest level of undergraduate degree offered.(4) Postbaccalaureate enrollment and degrees are excluded from this analysis.

Among the first-time beginners in 1989-90, almost half started postsecondary education at institutions in the 2-year sector, 42 percent in the 4-year sector, and less than 10 percent at institutions in the less-than-2-year sector.(5) The distribution of students by the control of the institution attended varied within these sectors. Nearly 90 percent of those in the 2-year sector attended public community colleges; three-quarters of those in the less-than-2-year sector attended private, for-profit institutions; and in the 4-year sector, two-thirds attended public, and one-third private, not-for-profit colleges and universities.(6)

Tables 1 and 2 show the distribution of the highest undergraduate degree attained, as well as students' enrollment status in the spring of 1994 in relation to the level of institution where the first-time beginners entered postsecondary education. The outcomes shown, however, did not necessarily take place at the institution or sector where they began. Rather they are the persistence and attainment rates for first-time beginners in postsecondary education overall without any restrictions: these rates include students who changed institutions, changed degree programs, or were awarded more than one undergraduate degree at any time during the 5 years.

Table 1-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to highest degree attained as of spring 1994, by level of first institution attended

By the spring of 1994, half of the first-time beginners in 1989-90 had attained a certificate or degree of some kind: 26 percent had attained a bachelor's degree; 11 percent had attained an associate's degree as their highest degree; and 13 percent had attained a certificate. Of those who began at 4-year institutions, a majority (53 percent) had completed a bachelor's degree, but some (about 7 percent) had attained a lower credential. Of those who began at less-than-2-year institutions, which primarily offer short-term vocational programs, 58 percent had attained a certificate but some (about 4 percent) went on to earn a higher degree elsewhere. The highest degrees attained by those who had started at 2-year institutions were distributed as follows: 14 percent had attained certificates, 19 percent associate's degrees, and 6 percent bachelor's degrees. Unlike the 4-year and less-than-2-year institutional sectors, however, a majority of students who began in a 2-year institution (62 percent) had not attained any degree by the spring of 1994.

Table 2-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to overallpersistence and attainment as of spring 1994, by level of first institution attended

Table 2 shows that in addition to the 50 percent of first-time beginners who had attained a certificate or degree by 1994, another 13 percent were still enrolled without a degree at some postsecondary institution. The sum of the proportion of students who attained and the proportion still enrolled in any postsecondary institution indicates that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students persisted in the broadest possible sense. About half (52 percent) of those who had started at a 2-year institution had either attained a credential or were still enrolled, as well as about two-thirds (65 percent) of those who had started at less-than-2-year institutions and three-quarters (76 percent) of those who had started at 4-year colleges or universities.

Student Persistence and Institutional Retention

Most of the studies of persistence and attainment in postsecondary education are based on institutional data that focus on the issue of student retention at that institution.(7) The longitudinal nature of the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, however, allows for the measurement of persistence both within and across institutions.(8)

Figure 1-Institutional retention and overall persistence rates of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students after 5 years

The difference between institutional rates of retention and overall persistence among first-time beginners in postsecondary education is substantial, especially in the 2-year and 4-year sectors. From the perspective of the individual students after 5 years, 50 percent had attained a postsecondary degree or certificate; 13 percent were still enrolled without a degree; and 37 percent were no longer enrolled and had not earned a degree (table 2). From the perspective of the first institution attended, however, the results are very different (table 3). After 5 years, only 37 percent had attained a degree at the first institution attended, and an additional 6 percent were still enrolled there without a degree.

The difference in the two perspectives is illustrated in figure 1. Whereas nearly two-thirds of the students who began postsecondary education for the first time in the 1989-90 academic year had persisted or attained an award within 5 years, less than half had done so at the institution where they began. The overall persistence rate of first-time beginners anywhere in postsecondary education is 20 percentage points higher than their persistence rate at the first institution attended.

The difference between institutional retention rates and overall student persistence rates is explained by what happens to those who transfer before attaining a degree. From the institutional perspective shown in table 3, only those 43 percent who attained or were still enrolled at that institution have persisted; the other 57 percent have left the institution before completing a program. About half of those who left the institution (29 percent), however, had transferred.

In the 4-year sector, table 3 shows that 47 percent of the first-time beginners had attained a degree at the first institution within 5 years, and another 9 percent were still attending the college or university where they had first enrolledfor an overall retention rate of 56 percent at the first institution. Those who were no longer enrolled at their initial 4-year institution were more likely to have transferred elsewhere (28 percent) than to have left postsecondary education (16 percent).

Table 4 shows what happened to those beginners who transferred from a 4-year institution: 13 percent of the beginners attained a degree elsewhere; 7 percent were still enrolled elsewhere in 1994; and 8 percent had left without a degree from a transfer institution. The sum of the "attained" and "enrolled" columns results in the totals shown earlier in table 2: 76 percent of those who had started at a 4-year institution in 1989-90 had either completed a program or were still enrolled in a program 5 years later (although these beginners were not all in bachelor's degree programs).

There was also a substantial difference between institutional retention and overall persistence and attainment rates for those who started in the 2-year sector. For example, 24 percent who had first enrolled in a 2-year institution had attained a certificate or degree at that institution within 5 years, but an additional 14 percent had attained a degree elsewhere after leaving (table 4). The retention rate at the first 2-year institution attended was only 30 percent (table 3), but 52 percent of those who began postsecondary education in 2-year institutions had either attained a degree or were still enrolled somewhere 5 years later (table 2).

Table 3-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to attainment and retention at the first institution attended as of spring 1994, by level of first institution attended

Table 4-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to overall persistence and attainment as of spring 1994, including transfer status, by level of first institution attended

Transfers and Changing Institutions

The difference between the retention rate at the first institution attended and the persistence of students anywhere in postsecondary education over the 5-year period under study reflects the frequency of student transfers. Overall, 29 percent of the beginning postsecondary students left the first institution attended without attaining a degree and then enrolled in a different institution (table 5). Including those who enrolled in a different institution after they had attained their first degree (about 5 percent), the overall transfer rate was 35 percent.(9)

Students were classified as transfers only if they changed institutions permanently without returning to the original institution. This excludes students who enrolled at courses in two institutions simultaneously, attended summer school at a different institution, or were enrolled temporarily at a second institution and then returned to the first one. When these are included with transfers, then nearly half (45 percent) of all the 1989-90 beginning students attended more than one postsecondary institution during the 5-year period.

Table 5-Percentage of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students who transferred or attended more than one institution as of spring 1994, by level of first institution attended

Transfers could take place within or between sectors, and students could transfer more than once. Student transfers between sectors are shown in table 6 by comparing the levels of the first and the last institution attended during the 5 years.(10) Of those who started at 4-year institutions, 10 percent were last enrolled in the 2-year sector. Although 5 percent of those who began at 2-year institutions were last enrolled in less-than-2-year institutions, the movement from 2-year institutions was primarily upwards: 20 percent of those who started in the 2-year sector were last enrolled in a 4-year institution. Nevertheless, the majority of beginning students did not change sectors.

Table 6- Percentage distribution of 198990 beginning postsecondary students according to level of lastinstitution attended as of spring 1994, by level of first institution attended

Degree Programs and Objectives

Since 2-year institutions typically offer both associate's degrees and certificates, and some 4-year institutions offer both of these credentials in addition to the baccalaureate degree, students were asked toward which degree or certificate they were working at each institution attended.(11) The purpose of the question was to identify the students' current degree program and objective. For the first institution attended (table 7), 51 percent of the first-time beginners responded that they were working toward a bachelor's degree; 30 percent were working toward an associate's degree; 16 percent were working toward a certificate; and 4 percent were not working toward any degree.

Table 7-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to degree working toward at the first institution attended, by level of first institution attended

Of those starting at 4-year institutions, more than 90 percent said that they were working toward a bachelor's degree, and of those starting at a less-than-2-year institution, 94 percent said that they were working toward a certificate. Therefore, in these sectors, there was a relatively close relationship between degree objective and highest undergraduate degree offered. In the 2-year sector, however, only about half of the students (55 percent) said that they were working toward an associate's degree, while one-quarter (24 percent) reported that they were working toward a bachelor's degree, an objective that could only be achieved by transferring to a 4-year institution.

In table 8, the persistence and attainment of students who started working toward a bachelor's degree in 2-year institutions are compared with students working toward an associate's degree in 2-year institutions and with those working toward a bachelor's degree in 4-year institutions.

Table 8-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to persistence and attainment of highest degree as of spring 1994, by degree working toward at first institution and level of first institution attended

Those who said that they were working toward a bachelor's degree at 2-year institutions were about as likely to earn an associate's degree (21 percent) as those who said that they were only working toward an associate's degree (24 percent). The bachelor's degree attainment rate was similar for both groups (8 percent). Bachelor's degree seekers beginning in a 4-year institution were much more likely to attain a bachelor's degree within 5 years (57 percent) than those beginning in a 2-year institution. Those seeking a bachelor's degree at 2-year institutions make up nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of all students with a bachelor's degree objective,(12) and their lower rates of attainment are reflected in the aggregate bachelor's degree attainment rate for all students with a bachelor's degree objective (46 percent).

Changing Programs and Degree Objectives

During the 5-year period, about one-fifth (22 percent) of the first-time beginners changed their degree objective. Table 9 shows the number of degrees attempted by the first-time beginners in relation to the first institution attended. Of those who started in the 2-year sector, almost one-third (31 percent) reported attempting more than one type of degree.

Table 9-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to number ofdegree types attempted as of spring 1994, by level of first institution attended

An alternative approach to measuring persistence and attainment is to measure these rates in relation to particular degree objectives. Using this approach, the students who changed objectives and attempted a second degree are counted more than once because they will be included in both categories of degree objectives. The proportion of beginning postsecondary students who ever attempted a specific type of degree will be greater than the proportion who first attempted such a degree. For example, 16 percent of the first-time beginners initially said that they were working toward a certificate, but over the 5-year period, 25 percent were working toward a certificate at one time or another (table 10). Similarly, 30 percent initially had an associate's degree as an objective, but 39 percent were working toward an associate's degree at some time. Another 51 percent were working toward a bachelor's degree initially, but 58 percent had a bachelor's degree objective at some time during the 5 years.(13)

Table 10-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to the degree working toward at first institution attended and the percentage ever attempting each degree as of spring 1994, by level of first institution attended

Those who had more than one degree objective were more likely to attain a degree or certificate than those who had only one (table 11). This includes students who earned one degree or certificate and then pursued a higher one, as well as those who attained a degree that was lower than the original objective.

Table 11-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to highest degree attained as of spring 1994, by type of degree attempted

Table 12 displays the first institution attended according to the type of highest degree attained by the beginning students. It illustrates how attainers of each type of degree began their postsecondary education. Nine percent of those whose highest degree was a certificate

and 16 percent of those who attained an associate's degree began their education at a 4-year institution. Twelve percent of those who attained a bachelor's degree had started at a 2-year institution and transferred. Overall, however, more than one-quarter (28 percent) of those who earned bachelor's degrees had enrolled for courses in a 2-year public community college at some time during the five-year period.(14)

Table 12-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to level of first institution attended, by highest degree attained as of spring 1994

Enrollment Continuity

Continuous enrollment is defined in this report as maintaining enrollment in postsecondary education without an interruption of more than 4 months (which allows for the normal summer break). Enrollment continuity is considered separately from transfer behavior. Students may transfer with or without breaking enrollment continuity by more than 4 months. Those who stop attending an institution for more than 4 months and then return to the same institution at some later time are often called "stopouts."

Table 13 shows that a considerable proportion of students either broke enrollment continuity, transferred, or did both. Fourteen percent were not continuously enrolled, but returned to the same institution; 13 percent transferred to another institution without a break in continuity; and 15 percent both interrupted enrollment continuity and transferred.

Table 13-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to transfer status and enrollment continuity as of spring 1994, by attendance characteristics

The result of these four different paths through postsecondary education relative to overall persistence and attainment is shown in table 14. In terms of attainment of any degree within 5 years, no difference was found between transferring and not transferring if there was no break in enrollment continuity (5657 percent attained). In fact, those who transferred without a break in continuity were the least likely to leave postsecondary education (21 percent left without a degree compared with approximately 40 percent for the other categories). Combining the attained and still-enrolled categories, those who transferred without a break in continuity had a persistence rate of nearly 80 percent, compared with about 60 percent for all the others.

Table 14-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to overall persistence and attainment status as of spring 1994, by transfer and enrollment continuity

Breaking enrollment continuity was associated with a lower rate of attainment for both those who transferred and those who did not. Only about one-third those who broke continuity had attained a degree by 1994, as compared to more than half of those who had no break in continuity. This is to be expected because breaks in enrollment continuity will obviously increase the time required to complete a program.

Average Enrollment Time

How long beginning students were enrolled relative to their persistence and attainment outcomes is shown in table 15. Enrolled time only includes the number of months that the student is actually in attendance, and does not include periods (such as the summer months) when the student is not enrolled. Those who had attained a bachelor's degree at their first institution were enrolled for an average of 41 monthsthat is, about 5 months longer than the typical 36 months in 4 academic years. Those who had attained an associate's degree at their first institution averaged 27 months of enrollment, or about 3 academic years, whereas those who had attained a certificate were enrolled for an average of 13 months.

Table 15-Average number of months 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students were enrolled through first degree (if any) or last enrollment as of spring 1994 according to overall persistence and attainment, including transfer status, by attendance characteristics

Student Characteristics and Persistence According to Sector

Are the differences in the persistence and attainment rates related to the differences in the characteristics of students who begin at various types of institutions? A comparison of the demographic characteristics of the beginning students according to their first institution attended is displayed in table 16. The profile of students entering 4-year institutions in 1989-90 reflects the characteristics of traditional college freshmen: they are predominantly 18 years old or younger (84 percent) and are dependent on their parents (92 percent). Of those entering 2-year institutions, which are primarily public community colleges, only about half were 18 years old or younger (48 percent) and two-thirds were dependent on their parents (65 percent). Among the students beginning postsecondary education at less-than-2-year institutions, which are primarily private, for-profit institutions offering vocational certificate programs, only one-quarter were 18 years old or younger, and less than half (40 percent) were dependent on their parents.

Table 16-Demographic characteristics of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to level of first institution attended

In terms of age and dependency, therefore, the population of beginning students was predominantly traditional at 4-year institutions, less traditional at 2-year institutions, and predominantly nontraditional at less-than-2-year institutions. A similar pattern across the three sectors is reflected in the composition of students by socioeconomic status (SES), a composite measure derived from information about family income, parental education levels and occupation, and household possessions. More than half (58 percent) of the students beginning at 4-year institutions were in the highest SES quartile, as compared with 30 percent of those beginning at 2-year institutions and only 14 percent of those beginning at less-than-2-year institutions. Both Hispanic and black, non-Hispanic postsecondary students were less likely to begin at 4-year institutions than were Asian/Pacific Islander and white, non-Hispanic students.(15)

To what extent are persistence and attainment rates related to these differences in the demographic characteristics of the beginning students by sector? Table 17 shows the percentage of 1989-90 beginning students who were either still enrolled or had attained a

degree or certificate as of spring 1994, both overall and within each institutional sector. Overall, as age at entry into postsecondary education increased, persistence and attainment decreased. For example, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of those who began at age 18 or younger had attained a credential or were still enrolled through spring 1994, as compared with less than half of those who began in their 20s or later.

Table 17-Percentage of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students who attained or were still enrolled as of spring 1994 according to level of first institution attended, by selected demographic characteristics

The difference in the persistence and attainment rates by beginning age and sector of first institution is illustrated in figure 2. At the less-than-2-year institutions, where the

majority of beginning students were older than 18, age at entry did not make much difference: 68 percent of those who began at age 18 or younger had attained a certificate or were still enrolled 5 years later, as well as 61 percent of those age 30 or older. For those beginning at 4-year institutions, a persistence and attainment decline occurs as early as age 19. Nearly 80 percent of those who had entered 4-year institutions at age 18 or younger had attained a degree or were still enrolled after 5 years, as compared with 65 percent of students who entered at age 19.(16)

Figure 2-Percentage of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students who attained or were still enrolled as of spring 1994 according to level of first institution, by age when began postsecondary education

Persistence and attainment of beginning students decreased at lower levels of socioeconomic status. This was true overall and within each sector. Although few statistically significant differences were found among racialethnic groups overall, they did appear within racialethnic groups according to the sector in which students started. As shown in table 17, at 4-year institutions, the persistence and attainment rate of Asian/Pacific Islander students (86 percent) was higher than that of all other racialethnic groups. At less-than-2-year institutions, beginning black, non-Hispanic students were significantly less likely than Hispanic or white, non-Hispanic students to persist or attain a credential (43 percent versus 70 percent and 68 percent, respectively). Black, non-Hispanic students who began at 4-year institutions, however, had the same overall persistence and attainment rates (72 percent) as the white, non-Hispanic and Hispanic students who began there. Whereas both non-Hispanic black and white students beginning in the 2-year sector had lower persistence and attainment rates than those who began in the 4-year sector, among Hispanic students the difference was not statistically significant.

Nontraditional Students and Risk of Attrition

Previous research suggests that many factors detrimental to postsecondary persistence and attainment are associated with students who did not follow a traditional path through postsecondary education.(17) These include such attributes as not receiving a regular high school diploma, delaying entry into postsecondary education after high school, being financially independent of parents, having children, being a single parent, attending school part time, and working full time while enrolled in postsecondary education. In a recent study of undergraduates enrolled in 199293, a risk index was developed by summing the number of these attributes associated with each student.(18) This risk index was shown to be negatively associated with 1-year persistence rates in postsecondary education.

Following this model, a persistence risk index consisting of the sum of the seven risk factors was assigned to each of the 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students as part of this analysis.(19) The results, which are shown in table 18, are consistent with the previous findings. As the number of risk factors increases, the overall likelihood of having attained a degree or of still being enrolled 5 years after beginning postsecondary education decreases. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of the first-time beginners with no risk factors when they began postsecondary education had attained a credential or were still enrolled as of spring 1994, compared with less than half (43 percent) of those with three or more risk factors.

Table 18 also shows that lower persistence and attainment rates were associated with each of the seven component risk factors. This was not always true when examined within the three institutional sectors, however. Although the presence of nearly all individual risk factors was associated with lower persistence and attainment in both the 2-year and the 4-year sectors,(20) neither the number of risk factors nor any individual component was significantly related to the persistence and attainment of students who began at less-than-2-year institutions.

Table 18-Percentage of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students who attained or were still enrolled as of spring 1994 according to level of first institution attended, by persistence risk factors when they began postsecondary education

Moreover, beginning students with two or more of these risk factors were more likely to persist and attain at less-than-2-year institutions than in either of the other two sectors. Students with high risk of attrition were, therefore, more successful at completing the short vocational certificate programs offered at less-than-2-year institutions than they were at persisting in the longer programs.

Among students with two or more risk factors, persistence and attainment rates did not differ according to whether they began at 4-year or at 2-year institutions (about 50 percent with two risk factors and about 40 percent with three factors). Students with only one or with no risk factors at all, however, were more likely to persist and attain a credential if they started at a 4-year institution than a 2-year institution. For such low-risk students, factors other than those measured by the seven risk factors, such as institutional selectivity, academic preparation, and individual motivation, may explain the differences in persistence and attainment.(21)

The overall difference in the 5-year persistence and attainment rates between those starting at 4-year institutions (76 percent) and those starting at 2-year institutions (52 percent) reflects the substantial difference in the proportion of beginning students with risk factors in the two sectors (table 19). Two-thirds (64 percent) of those entering 4-year institutions had no risk factors at all, as compared with about one-quarter (28 percent) of those entering 2-year institutions.

How is the presence of a high number of risk factors related to the demographic characteristics of beginning students? As shown in table 19, the number of risk factors was inversely related to the SES of the beginning students. There were few significant differences in the number of risk factors among racialethnic groups, except that Hispanic students were less likely to begin with no risk factors than white, non-Hispanic students.

Table 19-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students according to number of risk factors when they began postsecondary education, by selected demographic and attendance characteristics

The number of risk factors was directly related to the student's age at entry into postsecondary education. Because many of the risk factors, such as having children and being independent of parents, are correlated with age, it is not surprising that more than 70 percent of those who started postsecondary education in their 20s or older began with three or more risk factors. Although only 3 percent of students age 18 or younger had three or more risk factors, students who entered postsecondary education at age 19, only 1 year later, were more than five times as likely (17 percent) to have three or more risk factors. This is consistent with results discussed earlier, showing that 19-year-old beginners at 4-year institutions were significantly less likely to persist than those who began at age 18 or younger.

The direct relationship of age at entry into postsecondary education and the number of risk factors is consistent with previous research that suggests that the environmental variables and external constraints that interfere with persistence and attainment increase with student age.(22) Older nontraditional students who began postsecondary education at either 2-year or 4-year institutions were much less likely to have attained a degree or still be enrolled after 5 years than traditional 18-year-old beginners. One important exception to this pattern, however, is the finding that neither age at entry nor the number of risk factors is associated with persistence and attainment at less-than-2-year institutions. The shorter time commitment required to complete a vocational certificate at less-than-2-year institutions,(23) an average of 11 months, appears to mitigate the impact of the risk factors on persistence and attainment.

Persistence Toward the Bachelor's Degree at 4-Year Institutions

The previous discussion of persistence and attainment by sector has assumed a very broad definition of these terms to include students who were still enrolled anywhere in postsecondary education and those who had attained any degree or certificate during the 5 years under consideration, no matter where they started. This broad definition of persistence in postsecondary education allows for breaks in enrollment continuity, changes in degree objectives, and transfers to lower level sectors.

A more restricted definition specifically designed for analyzing the persistence of beginning students working toward a bachelor's degree at 4-year institutions has been used in previous research.(24) In this approach, persistence is defined as uninterrupted year-to-year enrollment continuity within the 4-year sector toward a single degree objective, the bachelor's degree. Students who meet these conditions are considered to be on the "persistence track," following an enrollment path that results in a high likelihood of bachelor's degree attainment. Students leave the track if they interrupt enrollment continuity in any number of ways: "stopping out" by leaving and then returning to the same institution, transferring after an enrollment gap, transferring to a less-than-4-year institution, or leaving postsecondary education without reenrolling anywhere.

An analysis using the persistence-track approach involves tracing the persistence and attainment status of students from year to year, by examining the following outcomes for each year: degree attainment, persistence through the year and into the next year at the same or another 4-year institution, and interruptions in persistence through stopouts and downward or delayed transfers. Figure 3 illustrates the flow of persisters along the persistence track from 1989-90 through the 1993-94 academic year. The numbers in parentheses trace the flow of a cohort of 1,000 beginning students through the entire model. For example, tracing the flow of persisters down the central axis of the figure reveals that 837 out of 1,000 students persisted into the second year, 758 through the second year and into the third, and 602 through the third year into the fourth. The number and percentage of those who leave the persistence track each year are shown in the boxes on the left side of the figure.

As figure 3 illustrates, year-to-year persistence rates for those who stayed on the persistence track in the previous year were very high: 84 percent persisted into their second year, and 91 percent of those persisted on to year three. In the third year, students begin to complete bachelor's degrees; therefore, the bachelor's degree attainment rates must be added to the percentage of those who persist into the next year.

Figure 3-Persistence, degree attainment, and non degree departure among bachelor's degree seekers in 4-year institutions: 1989-90 through 1993-94

The combined rates of persistence and bachelor's degree attainment for those on the persistence track were 85 percent for the third year (80 percent persisted into the next year and 5 percent attained in the third year); 91 percent for the fourth year (51 percent persisted and 40 percent attained); and 93 percent in the fifth year (26 percent persisted and 67 percent attained). In the first year, 16 percent of the initial cohort left the persistence track; in the second year, 9 percent of those who had persisted left the track; and in the third year, 16 percent of the persisters left the track. In the fourth year, 8 percent of persisters left and in the fifth year, only 6 percent left.

The difference in the attainment of those who stayed on the persistence track and those who did not is displayed in table 20. Overall, 57 percent of bachelor's degree seekers who began at 4-year institutions in 1989-90 had completed the degree by spring 1994, and another 15 percent indicated that they were still enrolled at a 4-year institution. Students who left the persistence track were much less likely to have completed the degree within 5 years (21 percent) than the persisters who had a pattern of continuous enrollment in the 4-year sector (84 percent).

Table 20-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning students seeking a bachelor's degree at 4-year institutions according to persistence and attainment outcomes as of spring 1994, by selected student and enrollment characteristics

Table 21 presents information on the timing of bachelor's degree completion. Overall, 31 percent of bachelor's degree seekers who began at 4-year institutions attained the degree within 4 years, and another 26 percent attained it during their fifth year. As would be expected, students with continuous enrollment in the 4-year sector were far more likely than students with interrupted persistence to have completed the degree within 4 years (48 percent compared with 8 percent) or in the fifth year (36 percent compared with 13 percent). Although persistence in the 4-year sector is highly correlated with completion of a bachelor's degree, it should be noted that about one out of five (21 percent) of the students who stopped out, transferred after a break in enrollment, or transferred to a less-than-4-year institution also returned and completed their initial bachelor's degree objective within 5 years, and another 16 percent were enrolled in the 4-year sector in 1994 (figure 3).

Table 21-Percentage distribution of 1989-90 beginning students seeking a bachelor's degree at 4-year institutions according to date of bachelor's degree receipt by June 1994, by selected enrollment characteristics

The propensity to leave the persistence track toward the bachelor's degree was related to the age of entry into a 4-year institution. As is shown in table 22, older students were less likely than younger students to maintain persistence, and the decline began at age 19. Of students who began college at age 18 or younger, 60 percent persisted without interruption, contrasted with only 45 percent of those who began at age 19, 38 percent of those who began in their 20s, and 23 percent of those who began at age 30 or later. Black, non-Hispanic students starting at 4-year institutions were less likely to stay on the persistence track towards the bachelor's degree than either Asian/Pacific Islander or white, non-Hispanic students.(25) Other differences between racialethnic groups were not statistically significant.

Table 22-Percentage distribution of persistence track outcomes among 1989-90 beginning students seeking a bachelor's degree at 4-year institutions: 1989-94

The propensity to leave the persistence track was also related to how and where students entered postsecondary education, and to their academic performance. Of bachelor's degree seekers who began their postsecondary education at a public 4-year institution, 55 percent maintained persistence, as compared with 64 percent among those who began at private, not-for-profit institutions. Those who first enrolled as full-time students were twice as likely to persist without interruption as those who first enrolled as part-time students (61 percent compared with 25 percent). Students' academic performance in their first year was also related to their persistence rates: 74 percent of those who earned mostly A's maintained their persistence, as compared with 31 percent of those whose grades were mostly below C's.

Summary and Conclusion

Tracing a group of students longitudinally for 5 years, as was done in the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, provides the data necessary to understand what happens to the nearly 60 percent of beginning students in postsecondary education who leave their initial institution without completing a program. The survey data show that about half of these students continue in postsecondary education by transferring elsewhere, presumably to find a more appropriate program or institutional match. Many do find such a match: within 5 years, nearly two-thirds of all first-time beginners had either attained a degree or certificate or were still enrolled somewhere in postsecondary education.

Finding a more appropriate program or institution, however, takes time and delays completion. Pursuing one degree at one institution without interruption is the most direct way to complete a program in postsecondary education and to attain a degree in the shortest time. Many of the beginning students, however, did not follow this direct path. They changed institutions, changed degree programs, interrupted their studies, or some combinations therein. Interrupting the continuity of enrollment in postsecondary education substantially decreased rates of attainment for all groups of students. As long as there was no break in enrollment continuity, however, changing institutions or degree programs was an effective way for students to persist in postsecondary education at high rates and to attain a credential, even if it was not at the same level as their original degree objective.

A majority of the students who began postsecondary education for the first time in 1989-90 were age 18 or younger, the traditional age cohort for beginning college. Only a small proportion of these students had more than one persistence risk factor, and this young cohort had higher rates of five-year persistence and attainment than any other age group. Ninety percent of all the first-time beginners who attained a bachelor's degree within 5 years were age 18 or younger at the time that they began postsecondary education in 1989-90.(26)

Those who did not begin postsecondary education until after the traditional age of 18 were burdened with persistence risk factors which increased with their age at entry. Although neither age at entry nor the number of risk factors was related to persistence and attainment rates for those who began at less-than-2-year institutions, older nontraditional students who began at either 2-year or 4-year institutions were less likely than their younger counterparts to attain any degree or to still be enrolled anywhere in postsecondary education after 5 years.


(1)Appendix C, table C3.

(2)For more details, see U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics,

(3)Appendix A contains a detailed description of the persistence and attainment variables used in this report.

(4)Each sector included institutions that are under public; private, not-for-profit; or private, for-profit control.

(5)Essay table 12.

(6)Compendium table 14.11.

(7)Vincent Tinto,

(8)See Appendix A for the decision rules used in determining the persistence categories discussed below.

(9)See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics,

(10)Comparing the first and last institutions may overlook intermediate transitions between sectors.

(11)This is different from the students' aspirations in terms of the highest degree or level of education they ever expected to complete, which was a separate question. See Compendium tables 10.4a-c for aspirations.

(12)Compendium table 14.10.

(13)Because the same students can be in more than one category, the totals add up to more than 100 percent.

(14)Compendium table 1.5.

(15)Compendium table 14.10.

(16)This finding is consistent with previous research. See U.S. Department of Education, ,

(17)J.P. Bean and B.S. Metzner, "A Conceptual Model of Non-traditional Undergraduate Student Attrition,"

(18)U.S. Department of Education, ,

(19)The seven risk factors included no high school diploma (students who did not receive a high school diploma or who received a GED or certificate of completion were considered not to have received a regular high school diploma); delayed entry after high school (students were automatically considered to have delayed entry if they did not receive a regular high school diploma or if they received a GED or certificate of completion. If the students received a high school diploma, they were categorized as delayed if they did not enter postsecondary education in the same year that they graduated from high school); being financially independent; having children; being a single parent (students were considered single parents if they had children living with them and were unmarried); attending less than full time during the first term; and working full time while enrolled (working full time while enrolled was defined as working 34 or more hours per week).

(20)All differences in persistence between those who had the risk factor present and those who did not were statistically significant except for single parents beginning at 2-year institutions.

(21)See Vincent Tinto,

(22)J.P. Bean and B.S. Metzner, "A Conceptual Model of Non-traditional Undergraduate Student Attrition,"

(23)See table 15.

(24)U.S. Department of Education, ,

(25)This is not inconsistent with the finding that there was no difference in overall persistence (anywhere in postsecondary education) between black, non-Hispanic and white, non-Hispanic students who began at 4-year institutions (table 17).

(26)Compendium table 14.9.



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