NCES Blog

National Center for Education Statistics

Challenges, changes, and current practices for measuring student socioeconomic status

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

There is an abundance of data and research that shows a relationship between a student’s socioeconomic status (SES) and their academic outcomes. For example, students from low-SES families are far more likely to drop out and far less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than their peers from middle- and high-SES families.

As we seek to better interpret and understand these and other findings related to student progress, it important for NCES to try to collect accurate and complete measures of student SES.


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

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002), Base Year and Third Follow-up. See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 104.91.


Measures of SES usually combine several different statistics, most commonly family income/wealth, parent educational attainment, and parent occupation.[1] In some surveys, NCES is able to collect data directly from parents in order to measure all these component of SES. However, in many assessments and some surveys, NCES is unable to collect this information directly from parents making it difficult to create a consistent measure of SES across the Center.

NCES staff recognizes both the importance of collecting valid and reliable SES data, and the challenges associated with doing so. For example, between 2010 and 2012, NCES convened a panel of experts in the fields of economics, education, statistics, human development, and sociology who provided information on SES, including theoretical foundations, common components, data collection and measurement approaches, and possible implications of a new measure of SES for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). There are several challenges for NAEP when considering the inclusion of survey items that can be used to measure student SES. Since NAEP does not include a parent survey, student or school-level data is currently the only potential source for data. However, data on SES can be difficult to collect directly from students as many are unable to accurately respond to questions about their family income or the highest level of their parent or parents’ education.

In terms of school-level data, student eligibility for free and reduced price meals has historically been an important indicator of household income. However, recent changes in the way schools are required to record eligibility for free and reduced price meals has required researchers to reconsider the use of this data point  as a measure of family income, or as a proxy, more generally, for SES. A recent NAEP blog on this topic provides additional information on NAEP-specific considerations, but these changes impact data collection efforts across the agency. Additionally, the free and reduced price meals data only reflect income, which is only part of a complete SES measure, and does not differentiate between middle and high SES students.

Given these changes, NCES is working to  identify other variables that could serve as more reliable and valid measures of student SES.  For example, several NCES staff members are involved with the Alternative SES Measure Working Group as part of the National Forum on Education Statistics. This group recently released the Forum Guide to Alternative Measures of Socioeconomic Status in Education Data Systems. This publication presents advantages and disadvantages for eight alternative measures of SES.  These resources are intended to serve as reference tools for education agencies engaged in identifying, evaluating, or implementing alternative SES measures. They are not data collection instruments and do not represent federal reporting requirements.

Collecting data on and examining differences in educational outcomes by student SES is important to both researchers and educators. As data systems evolve and measures of SES change over time, NCES is committed to researching and collecting the best data possible with the resources available.

 

[1] For most NCES surveys, parent educational attainment and parent occupation is based on the highest level achieved by either parent and/or guardian in the household.

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: