Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Who Goes to College? Evidence from the NLSY97

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Who Goes to College? Evidence from the NLSY97

Article excerpt

Estimates from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 show that sex, race, and ethnicity are unrelated to the student's decision to complete the first year of college, but are related to the decision to start college; high school grades, by contrast, affect both the decision to start college and the decision to stay in college for the first year.

Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), this article examines two questions: (1) who attends college by age 20? and (2) of those who go to college, who completes the first year? Both the decision to go to college and attrition from college have attracted a great deal of attention from parents, policymakers, and colleges, in part because college graduates earn substantially more than those without a degree.

Over a lifetime, higher earnings from a college degree reflect differences in starting salaries and in earning trajectories. Using CPS data from March 1998, 1999, and 2000, Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newberger estimate that, over a worklife, individuals with a bachelor's degree working full time, year round, earn about one-third more than individuals who do not finish college and earn almost twice as much as individuals with a high school diploma. (1) A 1999 Department of Education report reviews studies that compare those who complete a college degree with those with a similar number of credits, but who have not earned a college degree. (2) On the whole, studies indicate that a bachelor's degree adds significantly to a man's earnings, and an associate's degree adds significantly to a woman's earnings, over having a comparable number of college credits.

More than half of those who enter a 4year college leave without earning a degree. Many of those who drop out from college do so in the first year. Dropout rates at the end of the freshman year at 4-year colleges are in the neighborhood of one-quarter to one-third, and the first-year dropout rate at 2-year colleges is more than 40 percent. (3) Not surprisingly, then, finishing the first year of college is associated with a higher probability of graduating: of those who complete their first year of college at either a 2-year or 4-year institution, at least 60 percent go on to complete their degree. (4)


The NLSY97 is a national sample of 8,984 youths aged 12 to 16 years on December 31, 1996, who were living in the United States at that time. Interviews with these youths have been conducted annually, starting in 1997. Although employment and labor market outcomes are the focus of the NLSY97, the survey covers a broad array of topics, including marriage, fertility, and training, as well as participation in government programs, thus permitting researchers to examine how different factors are related to labor market outcomes. On the topic of schooling, a term-by-term event history is collected in which the respondent reports information about all schools that he or she has attended since the last interview. The information collected includes the level and type of school, the dates of the respondent's attendance, the respondent's spells of attendance, characteristics of the school, and the reason the youth left the school. The NLSY97 assigns an identification code to each school that a respondent attends, so that data users can tell whether the respondent attends that same school in subsequent rounds of the survey. For colleges, characteristics such as the degree sought; credits required, taken, and earned; the student's grade point average; tuition; the student's major; and financial aid are collected for each term during which the youth is enrolled.

The analysis that follows uses data collected through Round 8 of the survey, at which time the respondents ranged in age from 20 to 25 years. Because of the ages of the respondents, college-going youths are defined as those who attend college and are enrolled in a degree program by age 20. …

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