College & Workforce Readiness

Review of Transcripts Says College Concerns May Be Unwarranted

By Debra Viadero — February 18, 2004 4 min read
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The litany of bad news that has been coming out of higher education for years may not be warranted, a report released this month by the U.S. Department of Education suggests.

“Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000,” from the Institute of Educational Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Drawing on 30 years of postsecondary transcripts from three graduating classes of high school seniors, the study offers some new evidence to counter a wide range of bleak reports on how students fare in the nation’s colleges and universities.

The new findings raise some questions, for example, about reports suggesting that grade inflation, remedial coursework, and dropout rates are on the rise. They also suggest that assertions that colleges have become increasingly inaccessible for some groups of students may not be all that they seem.

“If you look over the last 30 years, and if you follow the student, the student is doing better than we think,” said Clifford Adelman, the report’s author.

For his study, Mr. Adelman, a senior policy analyst in the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, used three national databases to track the progress of students from the classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 over 8½ years.

He found sharp increases in the percentages of students who had gone on to postsecondary study, whether that meant taking a course or two or completing a full degree program.

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See the accompanying chart, “Higher Education Students on the Move.”

Only 58 percent of the 1972 high school seniors, for instance, had attended a community college or a four-year college by age 26 or 27. For the class of 1992, however, that proportion rose to 77 percent—a figure Mr. Adelman called “stunningly high.”

What’s more, he said, by the 1990s, the percentages of white, African- American, and Latino high school graduates who undertook some college-level study were roughly the same. The figures range from 70 percent to 79 percent—a big improvement over college-going rates in the 1970s.

Yet, huge differences in college-entrance rates remained between students from wealthy families and those from low-income households, according to Mr. Adelman.

Despite the influx of students, college-graduation rates held steady, according to the study. For the analysis, Mr. Adelman focused on “non- incidental” students, defined as those who had earned at least 10 postsecondary credits. Among that group, the percentage of students who earn their baccalaureate degrees by age 26 or 27 has hovered in the 45 percent to 49 percent range since the 1970s.

Mr. Adelman believes one reason for discrepancies between reports of falling college graduation rates and his own findings may be that students are no longer taking a straight path to college graduation.

“Students are on many paths,” he said, “and they can double and turn back on their paths and then go ahead.”

When they do, he added, they might disappear from college or university records.

Changing Schools

For instance, his study suggests that 60 percent of the students from the 1992 graduating high school class attended more than one postsecondary institution, up from 47 percent in the 1970s. One out of five students who started out in a four-year college or university in the 1990s earned a bachelor’s degree from a different institution.

A growing percentage of those transfer students are coming from community colleges, the report also shows.

The good news for students in that group, Mr. Adelman said, is that, contrary to several studies, the community-college transfer students tend to have higher graduation rates than the students who started out at the four-year schools.

Among “non-incidental” students transferring from community colleges, the report says, 72 percent had earned bachelor’s degrees by age 26 or 27.

In addition, the study found no real increases over 30 years either in the percentage of college students taking remedial courses or in the distributions of A’s or B’s given by postsecondary institutions.

In fact, the percentage of students requiring remedial classes fell from 51 percent in the 1980s to 42 percent in the 1990s, according to the study.

The researcher also found little cause for concern over reports that students are taking longer to earn their bachelor’s degrees. His findings show that the increase was slight, growing from 4.34 calendar years in the 1970s to 4.56 calendar years in the 1990s.

The caveat on the study, other experts said last week, is that it focuses on what they see as select groups of students.

“The part of the picture that Cliff was not looking at were students who did not go to college within two or three years of high school, or those who didn’t even graduate from high school, but perhaps later in life went on to get their [General Educational Development diploma] and then went to college,” said Clara M. Lovett, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association for Higher Education, a Washington-based group.

“This study is very useful and well done,” she said, “but it’s only part of the reality for those decades.”

Likewise, James E. Rosenbaum, who has studied community college students’ progress through higher education, said that concentrating on students who earn 10 or more credits leaves out a lot of students.

“We already know students who enter community colleges have enormous problems, and some of their problems seem to be getting that first 10 credits,” said Mr. Rosenbaum, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Mr. Adelman agreed that his findings might have turned out differently if he had studied broader populations of students.

“Lots of people who want to tell a bad story about higher education will put in all the high school dropouts,” he said. “This is an honest story.”

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