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The Path Least Taken: At a Glance

ELS is a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that followed a nationally representative sample of 15,000 high school sophomores from 750 high schools in 2002 through high school and into college and/or the workforce.  

For this report, high school graduates are defined as students who graduated on-time and obtained a standard high school diploma. It does not include students who earned a GED, a certificate of completion, vocational diploma, special education diploma or any other credential that illustrates student accomplishments but not satisfaction of high school requirements.

Non-college enrollees are defined as high school graduates who had not attended a two- or four-year post-secondary institution. Furthermore, students who attended less than 2-year postsecondary institutions such as trade schools were not identified as college enrollees as these are typically vocational training institutions not academic institutions.

In recent years, there’s been a focus among states to establish standards that prepare students for college and careers. All too often, however, the discussion surrounding these standards largely focuses on college, and even more narrowly, four-year institutions. As a result, many have called for resources to be redirected to those high school students who have no intention of continuing their studies at college, let alone a four-year university. Thus, the thinking goes, high schools that are single-minded in preparing students for college, potentially alienate a swath of students who have no desire for post-secondary education in their future. But is such conventional wisdom accurate? Is college a distant thought for many high school graduates? Is a high school diploma the last educational milestone for a large number of graduating seniors?

Not quite. 

A Startling Discovery

In our analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Education Longitudinal Study (ELS, 2002), we found that only one in five students drawn from this nationally representative sample of 15,000 did not enroll in college immediately  upon graduating from high school. 

Put another way, eight of out of every 10 students in the Class of 2004 made a beeline for college after receiving their diploma--- a rate that rose as more time, and perhaps job opportunities, passed. Eight years after graduating from high school, a mere 12 percent of the graduates from the Class of 2004 had not gone on to either a two- or four-year college. 



About This Report
This report, the first in a series aimed at shedding a light on those students who don’t go on to college will begin by examining the characteristics, expectations, and academic preparation of non-college-goers. In subsequent installments, we will also analyze the postsecondary outcomes of non-college-goers and the steps high schools can take for such students to succeed after high school. 
By drilling down into this small subset of the Class of 2004, we hope to gain major insight into the background, goals and preparation of non-college enrollees and how they compare to those graduates who did go onto college.

Policymakers, school leaders and educators need a clearer understanding of the paths graduates pursue in the years following high school in order to make more informed decisions about how to prepare students for success, whichever path they choose.  

The 12% and How They Compare to Their College-Going Peers

As we discovered, a remarkably small percentage of Class of 2004 students had not advanced to college by 2012, when most of them would be 26 years old. What else did we discover about this small population, especially in relation to their college-going peers? Many things. Among the most intriguing:

A Deeper Look
For more on the expectations Class of 2004 graduates had and how they aligned to their actions, read
A Deeper Look here.

Non-College Goers Tended to be Male

About Half (46%) Have Parents Whose Highest Level of Education Was a High School Diploma

They Took Fewer Academic Courses While in High School Than Their College-Going Peers

They Spent Less Time on Homework Than Their College-Going Peers

What’s the Big Takeaway?

It’s important for public schools to prepare all students to be life-long learners, regardless of whether or not they go on to college. Such preparation includes rigorous courses and more student support, especially in bridging the gulf between aspiration and attainment. 

School leaders can begin by asking some of the following questions: 
  • How many students expect to go onto college when they enter high school?
  • How many high school graduates don’t ever enroll in college?
  • How many high school graduates don’t go onto college but wanted to? 
  • What prevented them from going to college?
  • How does the high school preparation differ between those students who go on to college and those who don’t?
  • Do we have enough trained guidance counselors who are knowledgeable in postsecondary options and their entry requirements?
  • Do we provide opportunities for internships and college visits?
  • Do we encourage all students to take rigorous courses in high school, regardless of their plans for after graduation?

Jim Hull is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Public Education. Research support provided by former CPE interns, Jordan Belton and Patricia Campbell.

Published: September 2014
Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Education

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