Study: 40% of 2013 HS Grads Who Started on a Degree or Credential Didn’t Finish

NCES tracked 23,000 9th-graders by gender, race and income. 74% went to college, female and Asian students were top earners of bachelor’s degrees.

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A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that about 40% of high school graduates who enrolled in college or a certification program in 2013 hadn’t received a degree or credential eight years later.

The study followed 23,000 students starting with their freshman year of high school in 2009. Though 74% enrolled in college after graduating, almost half didn’t receive any postsecondary credential by June 2021. They are the fifth group the NCES has tracked for postsecondary outcomes, but the first cohort it began tracking in ninth grade. The studies allow researchers and policymakers to have a better understanding of students’ educational experiences beyond high school.

The previous group of 2002 graduates had a higher college enrollment rate, at 84%, and a completion rate of 52%. Though the study doesn’t include direct insight from students about why they may not have finished their education, it does give a snapshot of graduating seniors during that time. The 2013 cohort’s diverse set of characteristics such as their gender, race and income, paired with the economy, likely played a role. Additionally, students who were still in school at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 likely had their learning disrupted.

Elise Christopher, director of the NCES longitudinal studies, says the 2008 Great Recession could have influenced how this cohort thought about life after graduation and entering the workforce. She also points out that the No Child Left Behind Act could have had an effect.

When the study was being designed in the early 2000s, there was a lot of policy focused on degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and math. But, Christopher says, No Child Left Behind strongly emphasized math and reading, which put it at odds with the STEM pipeline push. The new study found that students who attended postsecondary education in the 2013 cohort mostly pursued degrees in non-STEM fields. Over 80% of students who earned a degree were in an unrelated field. Of the males who completed their higher education, nearly 30% were in STEM fields, as were nearly 14% of females. By race, Asian students had the highest percentage of STEM degrees and certificates, at nearly 34%.

Among the students who enrolled in postsecondary education, more than half were female. Thirty-nine percent of them earned a bachelor’s degree and 32% attained no credential. Though male students had a lower enrollment rate, at 44%, 38% similarly earned bachelor’s degrees.

The study also examined students by race. Although white students had the highest enrollment rate (53%), Asian students were the top earners of bachelor’s degrees, at 56%. Hispanic and Black students had the second-and third-highest enrollment rates, though far behind white students, at 20% and 12%, respectively. Despite pursuing higher education, 46% of Hispanic students and 56% of Black students earned no postsecondary credential.

The NCES also looked at the income and education levels of the students’ parents. About 80% of those whose families earned more than $115,000 completed their degree or credential, in comparison to 49% of students whose families earned under $35,000. Of students whose parents had a high school education or lower, nearly 40% didn’t pursue higher learning after graduation.

“It’s very important to understand what’s happening in ninth grade,” Christopher said. “But we really don’t know the full measure of those impacts of those educational experiences until we get these long-term outcome data.”

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