Skip Navigation

NELS:88 Design

Initiated in 1988 as the third in NCES’ series of decade-length secondary school longitudinal studies, the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88) was the most ambitious longitudinal study ever undertaken by NCES. It extended the age and grade span of earlier NCES longitudinal studies by collecting data from a middle school/junior high school cohort, the eighth-grade class of 1988. Along with the student survey, NELS:88 included surveys of parents, teachers, and school administrators. The study also administered cognitive tests in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies (history/geography/civics) to the sample members. High school transcripts for the sample members were collected in 1992; postsecondary education transcripts were collected in the fall of 2000. NELS:88 followed this eighth-grade cohort over time, but also “freshened” the sample at each of the first two follow-up studies.  Thus, tenth- and twelfth-grade cohorts were generated in NELS:88, respectively, in the first follow-up (1990) and second follow-up (1992) surveys. While the NELS:88/2000 sample contains three cohorts— eighth-grade, tenth-grade, and twelfth-grade—the analysis population for most reports uses a  single cohort. 

The Base Year of NELS:88—conducted in the spring term of the 1987–1988 school year—was designed to provide trend data about critical transitions experienced by students as they leave middle/junior high schools and progress through high school and into postsecondary education or the work force. The study collected data about educational processes and outcomes pertaining to student learning, predictors of dropping out, and school effects on students’ access to programs and equal opportunity to learn.

The First Follow-up took place in the spring term of the 1989–1990 school year — when most sample members were sophomores in high school—provided the first opportunity for longitudinal measurement of the 1988 baseline sample. It also provided a comparison point to high school sophomores examined 10 years before in the NCES sponsored  High School and Beyond (HS&B) longitudinal study.  The NELS:88 First Follow-up also captured the population of early dropouts (those who left school between the end of eighth grade and the end of tenth grade), while monitoring the transition of the student population into secondary schooling.

The Second Follow-up took place in the spring term of the 1991–1992 school year, when most sample members were in their senior year. The Second Follow-up provides a “capstone” measurement of learning in the course of secondary school, and also collects information to facilitate investigation of the transition into the labor force and postsecondary education after high school. In addition to surveying the students who were in school during the First Follow-up, the NELS:88 Second Follow-up resurveyed students who were identified as dropouts in 1990, and identified and surveyed those additional students who left school after the First Follow-up.

The Third Follow-up (NELS:88/94) took place in 1994, when most sample members had been out of high school for 2 years. Because of the dispersal of the sample, group sessions were no longer feasible and data collection was conducted primarily by computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) of sample members. The data collection period was February through June 1994. Major content areas for the Third Follow-up questionnaire were education histories, work experience histories, work-related training, family formation, income, opinions, and other experiences.

The Fourth Follow-up (NELS:88/2000) took place in 2000, the year in which most sample members turned 26 years of age and typically were 8 years removed from high school enrollment. Employing CATI (and computer-assisted personal interviews [CAPI] where face-to-face follow-up was required), the study focused on the educational and labor market processes and transitions experienced by young adults. Interviews were conducted from January to August of 2000.  Interview topics included experiences with postsecondary education, labor market participation, job-related training, community integration, and marriage and family formation. The study also included a student transcript data collection from the postsecondary institutions that NELS:88/2000 respondents reported attending after high school. Transcript data collection began in September 2000, and was ended in March, 2001.

For more information on the design of NELS:88, see The Base-Year to Fourth Follow-up Data File User’s Manual (NCES 2002-323)