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New Data Paint Bleak Picture of Students’ Post High School Outcomes

For many students who enroll in higher education after high school, a typical “four-year” degree can take twice as long to earn—if they complete it at all.

The findings come from the new federal High School Longitudinal Study, which has tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 20,000 students who entered 9th grade in more than 900 public and private schools in 2009. The new data, collected in 2021, looks at whether students have enrolled and completed different kinds of higher education—and paid for it—as much as eight years after graduating high school.

For example, of the students who started a bachelor’s degree program right after high school in 2013, only 45 percent earned a degree in four years. Sixty-five percent finished in twice that amount of time, leaving more than a third with course time but no credentials eight years later.

The disparities were particularly stark for Black and Pacific Islander students, who were more likely than other student groups to enroll in a higher education program then find themselves unable to complete it.

More time means more tuition, and the study finds students received relatively little federal support for higher education. The Education Data Initiative estimated the average cost of a four-year college was $36,436 per student per year as of 2023, including tuition, books, supplies, and daily living expenses. In-state, public tuition alone averaged nearly $9,700 per year.

That means dragging out the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree could drive up the total cost by $38,000—not counting fees, interest, living expenses, or income lost from entering the workforce later. The IES study found a little more than 60 percent of students received a federal student loan, and about the same share earned a Pell Grant, awarded to low-income students. Those who got federal student loans received an average of $17,900 total, and low-income students who received Pell Grants received on average only $10,800.

Some students got a boost from dual enrollment

High schools that allowed their students to begin earning credits for college did give their students a leg up, the data suggest.

Among the students who enrolled in higher education, those who had participated in high school duel enrollment made up nearly a third of those who completed their degree or certification, the data show. Dual enrollment students made up only 17 percent of students who enrolled but never completed a certificate or degree. Students who started taking college courses in high school accounted for more than twice the share of Black and Hispanic students who completed higher education as noncompleters.

The federal data also show girls continuing to outpace boys in higher education credentials, regardless of the kind.

High school links matter for science fields

Among students who entered 9th grade in 2009 and completed some kind of postsecondary degree or credential, those with at least a 3.5 grade point average in high school were at least 10 percentage points more likely to earn a STEM credential than those with lower GPAs.

Math achievement was particularly important; more than a third of students who performed in the highest quintile in math went into a STEM field in higher education, versus 12.5 percent or less of students who didn’t perform as well in math.

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