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Socioeconomic Status Tops Study of Education Factors

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A family's socioeconomic status could be the most important single indicator of a child's education plans, according to a massive survey.

Researchers interviewed and tracked 25,000 students, beginning in the 8th grade, over a six-year period and found no significant differences by gender, race, or ethnicity in the highest-achieving students' choices and access to education.

But the quarter of the respondents in the highest socioeconomic group showed higher expectations of attaining a postsecondary degree, were more likely to graduate from high school, filed more college applications, and went to college sooner.

"It's not that race and ethnicity are not important, but they're not as important as family background," said Allen Sanderson, one of the primary authors of the "National Education Longitudinal Study: 1988-1994, Descriptive Summary Report." Mr. Sanderson is the senior study director at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, which conducted the survey for the National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES is the statistics branch of the U.S. Department of Education.

Researchers divided students into quarters depending on family income, then compared the students in the lowest, two middle, and highest quartiles. The study found that "personal considerations," such as marriage rates, parenthood, and type and location of postsecondary institution chosen, were also associated with socioeconomic grouping.

Researchers began the survey in 1988 by conducting school-based interviews with 8th graders from more than 1,000 public and private schools nationwide. Those students were again interviewed at school in 1990 and 1992, and by telephone in 1994. Researchers plan to interview the group again in 1997 and in 2000, contingent on funding.

Mr. Sanderson said one of the study's immediate implications is that educators should impress upon all students the importance of an education and its potential economic payoffs. "The rate of return for a college education is very high, and the rate of return for a high school dropout is very low," he said. "We should make them aware of that and make them aware of the complementary public-policy piece that there is financing available so that they can follow through on that."

Keeping Their Intentions

The survey also shows that the students held closely to the educational aspirations they formed at an early age.

In 1988, 66 percent of the 8th-grade students said they anticipated earning at least a bachelor's degree, and an additional 22 percent said they expected to obtain some postsecondary education. Four years later, 61 percent still said they would attain a bachelor's degree, and 28 percent said they would attend some college or vocational school.

"What this tells us is that by the 8th grade, it's sort of a done deal that they're going to follow through on those expectations," said Mr. Sanderson. The ensuing policy question, he said, would be to find out at which point students form their educational aspirations and at which point intervention can be effective.

The study also found that by 1994, nearly 63 percent of the students had attended some type of postsecondary education. Of those pursuing that course, 57 percent attended public or private four-year institutions, 36 percent enrolled in public two-year institutions, and 7 percent attended trade or technical programs.

The study found that about 70 percent of the students who attended a four-year institution indicated that the college or university was their first or second choice. This figure demonstrates a "strong indication that the widely varied preferences of baccalaureate-bound students are being satisfied by the postsecondary education system, at least in terms of admission," the report says.

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