National Center for Education Statistics

Beginning postsecondary students: Persistence and attainment after 3 years

By David A. Richards

The number of students enrolling in postsecondary education has increased over the past several decades. While this increase in enrollment shows that more students are pursuing postsecondary credentials and degrees, it is also important to consider the number of students that go on to complete their postsecondary education. Data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS) can help researchers, policy-makers, educators, and the public answer questions about whether students are persisting through their educations and earning credentials. BPS data can also help answer questions about how these outcomes may differ by institutional and student-level characteristics.

The recently released Persistence and Attainment of 2011-12 First-Time Postsecondary Students After 3 Years contains findings from data collected from the Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) longitudinal study. This report answers questions such as, what percentage of first-time students who began postsecondary education in 2012 were still enrolled three years later? How many had earned a credential, and how did rates differ across different types of postsecondary institutions and degree programs?

This first look report on BPS:12/14 data shows that, among 2011–12 first-time postsecondary students, 7 percent had completed a certificate, 7 percent had completed an associate’s degree, and 1 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree at any institution within 3 years. Of the students who had not yet earned a credential, 39 percent were enrolled at a 4-year institution, 16 percent were enrolled at a less-than-4-year institution, and 30 percent were not enrolled at any institution by the spring of 2014.

At the baccalaureate level, among students who first enrolled in 4-year institutions and were seeking bachelor’s degrees, 1 percent had completed a certificate, 1 percent had completed an associate’s degree, and 3 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree at any institution within 3 years. Another 73 percent of the students seeking a bachelor’s degree were enrolled at a 4-year institution, 6 percent were enrolled at a less-than-4-year institution, and 16 percent were no longer enrolled at any institution.

Percentage distribution of first-time public 2-year college students 3 years after entry, by student age: 2012–14

! Interpret data with caution. Estimate is unstable because the standard error represents more than 30 percent but less than 51 percent of the estimate.
NOTE: Includes first-time postsecondary students starting at a Title IV eligible postsecondary institution in the 50 states and the District of Columbia in 2011-12.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2012/14 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:12/14).

BPS also contains data on attainment based on student characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and age. These data can be examined by the type of program in which students are enrolled and the first institution in which they enrolled. For example, among first-time postsecondary students beginning at a 2-year public college, 4 percent of those students who were age 18 or younger when they enrolled in 2011 had completed a certificate by the spring of 2014, 14 percent had completed an associate’s degree, 45 percent were still enrolled in a postsecondary institution, and 37 percent were no longer enrolled in postsecondary education. For students that were age 30 or older when they enrolled, 8 percent had completed a certificate by the spring of 2014, 8 percent had completed an associate’s degree, 29 percent were still enrolled, and 56 percent were no longer enrolled. Differences by other student characteristics, such as sex, race/ethnicity, dependency status, and parental educational attainment are available in the report.

BPS surveys nationally representative cohorts of first-time, beginning students at three points in time: at the end of their first year, and then three and six years after first starting in postsecondary education. It collects data on a variety of topics, including student demographic characteristics, school and work experiences, persistence, transfer, and degree attainment. BPS is a detailed follow-up to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative, cross-sectional study of U.S. postsecondary students designed to collect data on how postsecondary students pay for their education. The most recent BPS study, (BPS:12/14) used the 2012 NPSAS data as its base year (which included enrollment characteristics, education aspirations, and demographics) and conducted its first follow-up in 2014. (Another follow-up will be conducted in 2017.) During the 2014 follow-up study, BPS participants  were surveyed on their enrollment patterns since 2012—providing information about transfers, stopouts[1], attendance, and credentials earned—as well as on their employment histories. Study data were also drawn from a variety of other resources.

If you’re interested in comparing these findings to earlier BPS iterations, you can find earlier first look reports on the BPS publication page. BPS:12/14 data are also available for analysis through the online DataLab tool. If you have questions about the report or this data, please reach out to the National Center for Education Statistics at or by phone at (800) 677-6987.


[1] A stopout is a temporary break in enrollment.

Exploring a range of educational outcomes within and across countries: Sub-national data supplement to Education at a Glance 2015

By Lauren Musu-Gillette and Tom Snyder

Situating educational and economic outcomes in the United States within a global context can help researchers, policy makers, and the public understand how individuals in the U.S. compare to their peers internationally. The annual publication Education at a Glance produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides information on the state of education in many countries across the world. While these data are instrumental in helping us to understand how the U.S. compares to other OECD and partner countries on a number of key educational and economic outcomes, national averages can mask the high degree of variation that can occur within individual countries. In order to address this, several OECD and partner countries, including the U.S., provided sub-national data on several select indicators previously only available at the country level.   

These data, posted on the NCES website, serve as a supplement to Education at a Glance 2015 and provide select sub-national data for six indicators in this edition. These include data on educational attainment by selected age groups, employment rates by educational attainment, annual expenditure per student, enrollment rates by age, enrollment rates in early childhood and primary education, and enrollment rates and work status of 15-29 year-olds.

In order to understand the amount of variability in an indicator for a particular country, we can compute a ratio of the state, territory, or region with the highest percentage to that with the lowest percentage on any given metric. For example, within the United States, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who completed any level of postsecondary education in 2013 ranged among the states from 30 percent in Nevada to 55 percent in Massachusetts.

The ratio of high to low percentages of 25- to 34-year-olds completing postsecondary education in the United States (2.4) was among the largest of the reporting countries.  The ratio was higher in Brazil (5.8) with a range of 6 to 31 percent, and in Spain (2.8), with a range from 21 to 58 percent. The U.S. ratio was slightly higher than in Canada and Russia (both 2.3).  The ratio was lower in Sweden (1.8) and lowest in Slovenia (1.0), Ireland (1.2), and Belgium (1.2). The high to low ratio between OECD countries was 2.8, ranging from a low of 24 percent to a high of 68 percent.

Average percentage of the 25-34 year old population with postsecondary education (with subnational high/low value) in selected OECD and partner countries: 2014

NOTE: Countries are ranked in ascending order of the average percentage of the 25-34 year old population with postsecondary education. Data years differ. Data for Canada is from 2012, while data for the United States and Brazil is from 2013. Data for all other countries is from 2014.

SOURCE: OECD. Table A1.3a. See Annex 3 for notes and sub-national Summary Table A1.3a.

Regional policy makers can benefit most from the comparisons presented in Education at a Glance when they can compare the results from their own sub-national areas with national and sub-national data from other countries. It is not surprising that large federal countries, such as Canada, Germany, and the United States, in which education is largely controlled by regional authorities, might have large internal variations. But, many other countries with centralized education systems such as Spain and Sweden have substantial variations within their countries as well. These new sub-national data can help illuminate these differences and provide additional information to U.S. states on how they compare to their peers both within the U.S. and internationally. 

The growing field of statistics

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted October 20th as World Statistics Day. Over 130 countries and areas of the world joined in the inaugural World Statistics Day celebration. October 20, 2015 is the second time World Statistics Day will be celebrated. This day is intended to highlight the important contributions statistics and statisticians make to a wide array of national and international activities.  The theme for World Statistics Day 2015 – “Better data. Better lives.” – reflects the important role that statistics plays in helping businesses, governments, and the public make informed decisions.

Careers in statistics are varied, and cover a range of areas that include politics, economics, finance, and governance. As the interest in data-driven decision making grows, so too does the demand for statisticians.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the job growth for statisticians will be much faster than the average overall job growth. As a reflection of that growth, the number of degrees conferred in the field of mathematics and statistics has increased over the last decade. For example, in 2002–03 there were 12,505 bachelor’s degrees conferred in mathematics and statistics and in 2012–13, there were 20,453 degrees conferred in this field. During this period, the number of degrees conferred also increased for master’s degrees (from 3,620 to 6,957), and doctor’s degrees (from 1,007 to 1,823). 

Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics conferred by postsecondary institutions, by sex of student: 2002-03 through 2012-13SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 325.65.

While the number of degrees conferred in mathematics and statistics increased for both males and females over the past decade, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred to males in 2012–13 was higher than the percentage for females (57 vs. 43 percent). Similarly, a higher percentage of master’s degrees in this field were conferred to males in 2012–13 (60 vs. 40 percent), and the same was true for doctor’s degrees (71 vs. 39 percent).

By collecting and disseminating data on the number of degrees conferred in different fields, NCES can help researchers, policy-makers, and the public to determine whether the changing demands of the workforce are likely to be met.

To find out more information about World Statistics Day, please visit

Behind the degree: Direct measures of cognitive skills or reports of highest degree earned

By Heidi Silver-Pacuilla

Categories of educational attainment – or highest degree earned – are often used in social science research as an indicator of a person’s knowledge and skills. This measure is objective and readily available, easily understood by survey respondents as well as by consumers of research and survey data, strongly tied to policies (such as those promoting high school graduation and college completion rates), and widely used in the labor market by employers. Moreover, strong connections between educational attainment and positive life outcomes, such as employment, earnings, health, and civic engagement, are well established.

Yet, this measure is an imprecise indicator of the amount of knowledge and skills an individual acquired during the years of education it took to complete the degree. It also masks variation across individuals and programs of study. In addition, adults continue to acquire skills and knowledge from a variety of sources and activities over their lifetimes after completing a degree, while on the job or through employer-sponsored training, continuing education, family and household management, hobbies and interests, etc. Adults also lose fluency with skills that are not put to regular use.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey[i] provides direct measures of working-age adults’ cognitive skills based on their performance on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving tasks set in real-life contexts. Performance is reported on a scale of 1-5 for literacy and numeracy and a scale of 1-3 for problem solving. It pairs these measures with a background questionnaire that asks about the use of skills at work and in daily life, work history, and other social, behavioral, and demographic indicators.

Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012

# Rounds to zero
NOTE: Percentages of adults age 16 to 65 by highest level of educational attainment appear in parentheses. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012.

The direct measures of cognitive skills offer researchers the ability to study actual skills rather than only using attainment of a particular degree as a general indicator of skills, and to investigate how those assessed skills relate to behaviors and life outcomes. To illustrate how directly measured skills and educational attainment are not always aligned, we can compare direct performance to highest degrees earned. In the United States, of all adults who have attained only a high school degree, 20% performed in the lowest levels (Level 1 and Below Level 1) of literacy, while 7% of adults with an associate’s degree and 5% of those with a bachelor’s degree performed at this level. At the same time, the results showed that 6% of adults with no more than a high school diploma, 14% with only an associate’s degree, and 24% with a bachelor’s degree have very high literacy skills, at Level 4 or 5 on the same scale. See the full range of educational attainment and skill performance in literacy in the chart above.

Findings such as this can help inform policy, interventions, and communication strategies to better meet the needs of the recipients.

To read more about direct measures versus educational attainment, see Chapter 8 of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills – Reader's Companion.

[i] The PIAAC survey is coordinated internationally by the OECD. NCES implements PIAAC in the United States. Results were first released in October 2013 with data from 23 countries. It is a household survey administered by trained data collectors to a nationally-representative sample of adults, ages 16 through 65, in each country, in the official language(s), and in most cases, in respondents’ homes on a laptop computer.

In the United States, the survey was first administered in 2012 and additional results, based on an expanded sample, will be released in 2015-2016. To learn more about the U.S. administration and reporting of the survey, as well as related data tools, see  

Educational attainment differences by students’ socioeconomic status

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

Obtaining higher education can be an important step towards better occupational and economic outcomes. Lower levels of educational attainment are associated with higher unemployment rates and lower earnings. Although an increasing number of students have enrolled in postsecondary institutions over the last several decades, there are still differences in the characteristics of students who complete various levels of postsecondary education.

One particularly important issue to explore is differences in educational attainment by socioeconomic status (SES) to investigate the opportunities for social mobility that education can provide. Recently, NCES published a spotlight indicator on this topic to be included in the annual Condition of Education report. The report uses data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002), which surveyed students at different points during their secondary and postsecondary years. Students were first surveyed in 2002 when they were sophomores in high school. Then, their highest level of education was assessed ten years later, in 2012.

Percentage distribution of highest level of educational attainment of spring 2002 high school sophomores in 2012, by socioeconomic status (SES)

1 Includes education at any type of postsecondary institution, but with no earned postsecondary credential. 
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014table 104.91.

Several key findings highlight differences in educational attainment by SES. For example:

  • Seven percent of low-SES students had not completed high school by 2012, greater than the percentages of middle- and high-SES students who had not completed high school by 2012;
  • By 2012, Fourteen percent of low-SES students who were high school sophomores in 2002 had earned a bachelor’s or higher degree, smaller than 29 percent of middle-SES students and 60 percent of high-SES students who earned a bachelor’s or higher degree; and
  • Compared to high-SES students, smaller percentages of low- and middle-SES students who performed in the highest quartile of math achievement during their sophomore year of high school went on to complete a bachelor’s degree by 2012.

Percentage of spring 2002 high school sophomores who earned a bachelor's degree or higher by 2012, by socioeconomic status (SES) and mathematics achievement quartile in 2002

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014table 104.91.

The following video describes additional findings from the report: