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Executive Summary

This report describes patterns of continuity and change over time in four areas of the transition to adulthood among young adults as measured 2 years after their senior year of high school. The four areas are postsecondary enrollment, labor force roles, family formation, and civic engagement through voting or military service. The analysis population is spring-term high school seniors in 1972, 1980, 1992, and 2004. Analyses of these four cohorts of young adults represent their experiences in these four areas at four points in time 2 years after high school over a period of 32 years from 1974 to 2006.

The data come from four separate studies: the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS:72), High School and Beyond (HS&B), the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88), and the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002).1 Each study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to help fulfill a major purpose of NCES national educational longitudinal studies, which is to provide comparative data at different points in time that are germane to education policy and permit examination of patterns relative to education, career development, and societal roles.

These studies provide cross-sectional and longitudinal cohort data that can be used to examine the experiences, attitudes, and achievement of high school students and their transition to young adulthood, postsecondary education, and work. As part of the time series design, the four studies have collected a stable core of information each decade to document the demographic composition of each cohort and to capture essential features of their high school and post-high school experiences in a comparable way.

All differences discussed in the text of this report are statistically significant. For establishing statistical significance, t tests taking into account the effects of sampling error were performed, and the 0.05 level of significance was used as a criterion. Comparisons were tested across years for all seniors and by subgroup (e.g., males in 1974 versus males in 2006), within years across subgroups (e.g., females in 1974 versus males in 1974), and across subgroup gaps across years (e.g., female-male gap in 1974 versus the same gap in 2006). These analyses of trends in the measures of status as a young adult include the consideration of when the most change occurred with respect to three subperiods—1974 to 1982, 1982 to 1994, and 1994 to 2006—within this overall time period. Because even very small differences can be statistically significant with the large sample sizes involved in these analyses, not all statistically significant differences are discussed in the text. Appendix A—Technical Notes and Glossary provides more information about the statistical tests used, and Appendix B—Standard Error Tables provides the standard errors of the table estimates. Readers can use these two sources to calculate t statistics for independent sample comparisons.

The next sections provide highlights of the report. In all instances, these results pertain to spring-term high school seniors 2 years later. Data reflect either (1) status at the time of the interview (e.g., current postsecondary enrollment); (2) data that are retrospective from the time of interview to the senior year interview (e.g., ever worked within the past 2 years); or (3) data anchored to a specific date (e.g., marital status as of the first week of February 1982). Readers are cautioned that while the findings compare different years, there is no available indication of what was happening in intervening years and whether these additional time points, were they available, would or would not support or qualify the trends presented in this report.

In being nationally representative of the four cohorts of spring high school seniors since 1974, students who dropped out of school earlier than the spring of their senior year of high school and did not return by that time are not included. If they returned by the spring of their senior year of high school, they are included, even if they did not complete high school until the following fall or later.

1 NELS:88 used in this report began as a cohort of 8th-grade students in 1988, the HS&B data as a cohort of 1980 seniors, and the ELS:2002 data as a cohort of 10th-grade students in 2002, but because of sample freshening, the high school senior waves used in each of these surveys are nationally representative. Appendix A provides more information about these samples. The four specific analysis cohorts on which this report is based only include young adults who were enrolled in high school in the spring of their senior year. All except very small numbers of them completed high school (i.e., earned a diploma or equivalency certificate).