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Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002)

1. Overview

ELS:2002 collects data from:
  • Students and dropouts
  • School administrators
  • Library media staff
  • School facility checklist
  • Parents
  • High school transcripts

The Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002) represents a major longitudinal effort designed to provide trend data about critical transitions experienced by students as they proceed through high school and into postsecondary education or their careers. The 2002 sophomore cohort is being followed, initially at 2–year intervals, to collect policy–relevant data about educational processes and outcomes, especially as such data pertain to student learning, predictors of dropping out, and high school effects on students’ access to, and success in, postsecondary education and the workforce.

In the spring term of 2002 (the base year of the study), high school sophomores were surveyed and assessed in a national sample of high schools with 10th grades. Their parents, teachers, principals, and librarians were surveyed as well.

In the first of the follow-ups, base-year students who remained in their base-year schools were resurveyed and tested (in mathematics) 2 years later, along with a freshening sample that makes the study representative of spring 2004 high school seniors nationwide. Students who had transferred to a different school, switched to a homeschool environment, graduated early, or dropped out were administered a questionnaire. In the second follow–up in 2006, information was collected through a single electronic questionnaire about colleges applied to and aid offers received, enrollment in postsecondary education, employment and earnings, and living situation, including family formation.

The third follow-up data collected in 2012 support further investigations: persistence in attaining postsecondary educational goals; rate of progress through the postsecondary curriculum; degree attainment; barriers to persistence and attainment; impacts of educational indebtedness; entry of new postsecondary graduates into the workforce; social and economic rate of return on education to both the individual and society; and adult roles, such as family formation and civic participation.


ELS:2002 is designed to monitor the transition of a national sample of young people as they progress from 10th grade through high school and on to postsecondary education and/or the world of work.


ELS:2002 has two distinctive features. First, it is a longitudinal study in which the same units are surveyed repeatedly over time. Individual students will be followed for more than 10 years; the base-year schools were surveyed two times, once in 2002 and again in 2004. Second, in the high school years, it is an integrated multilevel study that involves multiple respondent populations. The respondents include students, their parents, their teachers, their librarians, and their schools.


Base-year survey. The base–year (2002) data collection instruments for ELS:2002 consisted of five separate questionnaires (student, parent, teacher, school administrator, and library media center), two achievement tests (assessments in reading and mathematics), and a school observation form (facilities checklist).

Student questionnaire. The student questionnaire gathered information about the student’s background, school experiences and activities, plans and goals for the future, employment and out-of-school experiences, language background, and psychological orientation toward learning. The student questionnaire was divided into seven sections: (1) locating information, (2) school experiences and activities, (3) plans for the future, (4) non-English language use, (5) money and work, (6) family, and (7) beliefs and opinions about self. Assessments in reading and mathematics were given at the same time. The baseline scores for the assessments can serve as a covariate or control variable for later analyses. Mathematics achievement was reassessed 2 years later, so that achievement gain over the last 2 years of high school could be measured and related to school processes and mathematics coursetaking.

Parent questionnaire. One parent of each participating sophomore was asked to respond to a parent survey. The parent questionnaire was designed to gauge parents’ aspirations for their child and to collect information about the home background and home education support system, the child’s educational history prior to 10th grade, and parents’ interactions with and opinions about the student’s school.

Teacher questionnaire. For each student enrolled in English or mathematics, a teacher was also selected to participate in a teacher survey. The teacher questionnaire was designed to illuminate questions on the quality, equality, and diversity of educational opportunity by obtaining information in two content areas: the teacher’s evaluations of the student and information about the teacher’s background and activities.


School administrator questionnaire. The school administrator questionnaire collected information on school characteristics, student characteristics, teaching staff characteristics, school policies and programs, technology, and school governance and climate. The school administrator data can be used contextually, as an extension of the student data, when the student is the fundamental unit of analysis. At the same time, the data from the school administrator questionnaire are nationally representative and can be used to generalize to the nation’s regular high schools with sophomores in the 2001–02 school year.

Library media center questionnaire. For the school library media center component, the school librarian, media center director, or school administrator supplied information about library media center size, organization, and staffing; technology resources and electronic services; the extent of library and media holdings, including both collections and expenditures; and levels of facility utilization, including scheduling for use by students and teachers. Finally, the questionnaire supplied information about the library media center’s use in supporting the school’s curriculum; that is, how library media center staff collaborate with and support teachers to help them plan and deliver instruction. Information in the library media center questionnaire can be used as contextual data with the student as the unit of analysis or to generalize to libraries within all regular high schools with 10th grades in the United States in the 2001–02 school year.

School facilities checklist. The facilities component comprised a checklist to be completed by the survey administrator. The survey administrator was asked to observe a number of conditions at the school, including the condition of the hallways, main entrance, lavatories, classrooms, parking lots, and surrounding neighborhood. Of special interest were indicators of security (metal detectors, fire alarms, exterior lights, fencing, security cameras, etc.) and maintenance and order (trash, graffiti, clean walls and floors, noise level, degree of loitering, etc.). Information gathered in the facilities checklist can be used as contextual data with the student as the unit of analysis, or data can be used at the school level to generalize to all regular high schools with 10th grades in the United States in the 2001–02 school year.

First follow-up survey. The first follow-up (2004) survey comprised seven questionnaires and an achievement test in mathematics. The questionnaires included a student questionnaire, a transfer student questionnaire, a new participant supplement questionnaire (NPSQ) (repeating selected questions from the base year), a homeschool student questionnaire, an early graduate questionnaire, a dropout (not currently in school) questionnaire, and a school administrator questionnaire.


Student questionnaire. The student questionnaire was administered to sophomore cohort members who had remained in their base-year school as well as to a freshening sample of 12th-graders in the same schools. Students who completed the student questionnaire also were normally eligible for the first follow-up mathematics assessment. Some students were administered an abbreviated version of the questionnaire. The full questionnaire comprised eight content modules: (1) contact information in support of the longitudinal design; (2) the student’s school experiences and activities, including information about extracurricular participation, computer use in English and math, the transition process from the sophomore year to upper-level secondary school, and the relationship of curricular programs and coursetaking to educational achievement and persistence; (3) time usage on homework, TV viewing, video and computer games, computers, nonschool reading, library utilization, and other activities; (4) plans and expectations for the future, including students’ educational and life goals and values; (5) education after high school; (6) plans for work after high school; (7) work status and history; and (8) community, family, and friends.

Transfer student questionnaire. Sophomore cohort members who had transferred out of their base-year school to a new school received the transfer student questionnaire. Transfer students were asked a subset of items from the student questionnaire covering the following topics: school experiences and activities; time use; plans and expectations for the future; education after high school; work after high school; and community, family, and friends. In addition, transfer students were asked when they transferred and their reasons for doing so. Transfer students did not complete a cognitive test, but their test scores have been imputed.

New participant supplement questionnaire (NPSQ). Any student new to the study at any of the core (base-year) schools was administered the NPSQ. The NPSQ gathered information (that had been collected for other students in the base year) on new participants’ demographic characteristics, parental education and occupation, and language use. In addition, a subset of items included in the student questionnaire was also posed to new participants. These items (which are identical in content to those in the abbreviated student questionnaire) relate to topics such as school experiences and activities; time use; plans and expectations for the future; education and work after high school; and work, community, family, and friendship experiences. In contrast, the New Participant Supplement (NPS) gathered the key base-year variables that also were included in the NPSQ.


Homeschool student questionnaire. ELS:2002 does not provide a representative sample of homeschooled high school students. (In the base year, all study sophomores were selected from regular U.S. high schools.) Instead, homeschooled students in ELS:2002 generalize only to sophomores in regular high schools in the spring term of 2002 who were in a homeschool situation 2 years later. Homeschooled students were asked about their schooling activities and status, including their grade, coursework completed in science and math, and steps taken toward college; how they spend their time; their plans and expectations for the future, including education and work after high school; work experiences; and community, family, and friends.

Early graduate questionnaire. Early graduates were defined as sophomore cohort members who had graduated from high school or received a General Educational Development (GED) credential on or before March 15, 2004. Early graduates completed only a subset of the items in the student questionnaire, complemented by additional items pertaining to their situation. More specifically, early graduates were asked with whom they consulted when deciding to graduate early, the basis for that decision, and the means by which they did so. They also provided a history of their work and educational experiences since leaving high school.

Dropout questionnaire. Dropouts were defined as sophomore cohort members who were out of school in the spring term of 2004, who had not received a high school diploma or GED credential, and who had missed 4 or more consecutive weeks to a cause other than accident or illness. There was considerable overlap between the student and dropout questionnaires; both collected locating information for longitudinal follow-up and included items on school experiences and activities, time use, plans and expectations for the future, and the type and amount of work in which dropouts were engaged. The dropout questionnaire gathered information about students’ work status and history, volunteer work or community college experience, and the educational behavior of friends. In the area of school experiences and activities, dropouts were asked questions about the school they last attended and their participation in alternative education programs. In addition, they were asked to supply their specific reasons for leaving school prior to graduation. They were asked as well about plans to get a GED or return to high school.

School administrator questionnaire content and content linkages. The school administrator questionnaire collected information on the school in four areas: school characteristics, structure, and policies; student characteristics and programs; teacher and library staff characteristics; and principal reports on the school environment. It should be noted that school-level data are not nationally representative of American high schools in 2004, since the first follow-up sample did not factor in “births” of new schools and “deaths” of existing schools between 2002 and 2004. First follow-up school data, however, do provide a statistical portrait of a nationally representative sample of American high schools with 10th grades in 2002 (2 years later).


Second follow-up survey. The second follow-up (2006) survey was a single electronic questionnaire administered in three modalities—a web-enabled self-administration, computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI), and computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI). (Both CATI and CAPI are interviewer-administered modalities.) The questionnaire covered the transition from high school to postsecondary education, and included items on college access and choice. Items were drawn from a number of studies, including the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (see B&B chapter), Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (see BPS Chapter) High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study (see HS&B chapter), National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (see NELS:88 chapter), and National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (see NPSAS chapter). The interview was organized into four substantive sections: High School, Postsecondary Education, Employment, and Community. The interview concluded with a Locating section.

The first section, High School, collected retrospective information about high school completion. Respondents were classified as spring-term 2004 12th-graders, spring-term 2004 dropouts, neither, or both (for a small set). The majority of respondents skipped this section entirely because their high school completion date and the type of high school credential they earned were preloaded into the instrument at the start of data collection.

The Postsecondary Education section of the interview, the point of entry for most respondents, focused on education after high school. Questions pertained to the application process, admissions, financial aid offers, institutions attended, experiences at these institutions, and educational expectations. Complete month-by-month enrollment histories for all postsecondary institutions attended after high school were collected in this section. These enrollment histories (in conjunction with the date of high school completion or exit, as preloaded or reported in the High School section of the interview) were used to classify respondents into one of six mutually exclusive categories: standard enrollees, delayers, leavers, delayer-leavers, nonenrollees, and high school students. The questions administered to each respondent depended on his/her category. These categories were used for the Employment and Community sections as well. For more details, see the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002: Base-Year to Second Follow-up Data File Documentation (Ingels et al. 2007).

There were five topics in the Employment section. The questions for the first topic referred to the first job after high school. The second set of questions focused on employment at the time of the interview. The next set focused on jobs held by postsecondary students during the 2004–05 and 2005–06 academic years. Respondents were also questioned about months of unemployment (if a gap existed between high school and their first job, their first job and their current job, and/or their first job and the date of the interview, if they were not currently working). Lastly, the questions for the fifth topic focused on income, finances, and occupational expectations at age 30.

The final substantive section of the interview, Community, covered topics related to family formation, living arrangements, community involvement (including military service), and experiences that may influence the life course. With one minor exception, all questions pertained to all respondent types.

The interview concluded with the Locating section, which collected information that will be used to contact the respondents in the next round of the study.


High school transcript study. Transcripts were collected from sample members in late 2004 and early 2005, about 6 months to 1 year after most students had graduated from high school. Transcripts were collected from the students’ base-year school. However, if it was learned during the first follow-up data collection that they had transferred, transcripts were collected from two schools: the base-year school and the last known school of attendance. For students who were added to the study during their senior year (known as “freshened” students), transcripts were only collected from their senior-year school. Transcripts were collected for regular graduates, as well as dropouts, early graduates, and students who were homeschooled after their sophomore year. For more information, see the High School Transcript (HST) studies chapter).

The ELS:2002 high school transcript data collection sought key pieces of information about coursetaking from students’ official high school records (e.g., courses taken while attending secondary school, credits earned, year and term a specific course was taken, and final grades). When available, other information, such as dates enrolled, reason for leaving school, and standardized test scores, was collected. All information was transcribed and can be linked back to the students’ questionnaire or assessment data. Because of the size and complexity of the file and the reporting variation by school, additional variables were constructed from the raw transcript file to facilitate analyses. These variables include standardized grade point averages (GPAs), academic pipeline measures, and total credits earned by subject area. The construction of many of the transcript variables is based on Carnegie units. A Carnegie unit is equal to a course taken every day, one period per day, for a full school year.

Third follow-up survey. The third follow-up (2012) questionnaire was designed for electronic self-administration (web) or computer-assisted interviewer administration (computer-assisted telephone interview–CATI or computer-assisted personal interview–CAPI). Items were selected primarily for their intracohort value, that is, their relevance, as final outcomes, to the antecedent or predictor variables gathered in earlier rounds. Of secondary importance was the intercohort value of items, that is, whenever possible variables were used which would prove comparable to those employed in the final round of NELS:88 in 2000, when the NELS:88 cohort was approximately the same age (and years beyond high school) as the third follow-up ELS:2002 sample.

For the third follow-up, there is only one strictly comparable point in time with which to link on a cross-cohort basis, the NELS:88 fourth follow-up in 2000. Below, content of the third follow-up questionnaire is summarized, followed by a summary of the abbreviated version of the instrument.

Current status. The interview asks about the respondent’s current activities, such as labor market status and educational status.

High school completion. For sample members who had not completed high school (or General Educational Development [GED]) by the second follow-up or whose completion status was unknown, the third follow-up interview obtained updated information.

Postsecondary education. This section of the interview focused on the postsecondary enrollment and attainment at all levels of credentialing and degree completion and includes all forms and levels of sub-baccalaureate, baccalaureate, and graduate and professional enrollment. It also gathers information such as primary or secondary major or program of study. First, sample members were asked to identify postsecondary institutions they had attended; second, they were asked to identify any postsecondary credentials earned. Attendance information were used to conduct the postsecondary education transcript component of the study in 2013–14. Reasons for leaving school were also elicited.

The college experience. Although most sample members were, by 2012, out of school, it was still possible to ask some questions retrospectively, about the college experience, and its perceived role and impact as carried into the mid-twenties of the cohort.

Education finance. The questionnaire explores the issue of educational borrowing and its impact. Information about receipt of scholarships, fellowships, and grants is also obtained.

Educational expectations. Following in the tradition of the prior NCES high school cohort studies, all respondents were asked to report the highest level of education they expected to achieve by age 30 (average age at time of interview is about 26).

Employment and income. The interview gathered information on employment and income. A brief employment history is collected. Respondents were asked to answer a series of questions about job title and duties, hours worked, earnings, and employer type. Both the employed and the unemployed were asked about perceived employment barriers they may have faced or be facing. All respondents were asked for their annual income and whether they have any dependents. These questions will allow analysts to roughly estimate net earnings after taxes. The questionnaire asked separately about employment through the military. In addition, some scales have been added on job orientation and satisfaction, that are informed by social-cognitive career theory, and that were written specially for ELS:2002.

Family formation. The interview collected information about family life and civic engagement (including both voting and community service). With respect to family, the questions determine marital status, whether the respondent has children, and members of the household.

Life values. As included in earlier rounds of ELS:2002 as well as in some of the prior NCES secondary longitudinal studies, questions are asked about the life values (acquisition of money, friendships, helping others, a good marriage, etc.) that are important to the respondent.

Additional topics. Additional topics included civic engagement, assets/debt, and certification/licensure.

Postsecondary transcript study. Transcripts were collected from sample members in 2012, during the third follow-up collection phase. Transcripts were requested from all postsecondary institutions that the sample members attended, including any copies of transcripts institutions had received from any transfer schools attended.

The ELS:2002 postsecondary transcript data collection sought key pieces of information regarding types of degree programs, periods of enrollment, majors or fields of study for instructional programs, specific courses taken, grades and credits attained, and credentials earned. Transcript information was coded using the Keying and Coding System (KCS). For more details, see the Postsecondary Transcript Studies (PETS) chapter.


The base-year survey was conducted in the spring of 2002. The first follow-up was done in 2004, as was the high school transcript component. A post-high school follow-up was done in 2006. In the third follow-up, sample members were interviewed between July 2012 and February 2013 to collect the study’s final outcomes (e.g., persistence in higher education, sub-baccalaureate and baccalaureate attainment, transition into the labor market). Postsecondary transcripts were also collected as part of the third follow–up.

Data Availability

Data are available for all waves of ELS:2002 at