When Students Enroll in College, Do All Roads Lead to a Bachelor's Degree?
Student Pathways through 4-Year College
Research underway at Chapin Hall shows that the various paths students follow in pursuit of postsecondary education have a significant impact on their prospects for attaining a bachelor’s degree. This research also indicates that students who are the first generation in their families to attend college face some disadvantage in earning a degree. Although the proportion of high school graduates who continue on to postsecondary education has increased over the past 3 decades, rates of bachelor’s degree completion have remained steady. Thus, the challenge for policymakers is to encourage persistence in and completion of postsecondary education.
To understand patterns of degree completion, it is crucial to focus on the different paths students take to enter and graduate from college. Research shows that the traditional pathway to earning a bachelor’s degree— defined as continuous full-time enrollment into college immediately after high school graduation—has become the exception rather than the rule. Yet, deviating from the traditional pathway dramatically decreases students’ likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree.
The following are the six components of what we term a traditional pathway to secondary education:
- attaining a regular high school diploma
- entering college within 7 months after graduating from high school
- entering a 4-year college as first college
- remaining enrolled in a 4-year college without transferring to a 2-year college
- remaining enrolled continuously in a 4-year college, without interruptions of 8 or more months
- continuing to be a full-time student
Students may deviate from the traditional pathway in a variety of ways—by delaying entry into college, interrupting college enrollment once or more, and transferring back and forth between 2- and 4-year colleges.
We draw on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, a nationally representative sample of 12,686 men and women ages 14-21 as of December 31, 1978, to explore the various pathways students take through postsecondary education. This cohort was interviewed annually from 1979 to 1994 and biannually from 1994 to 2002, an observation period long enough to fully capture their various pathways and trajectories.
The graph shows that deviations from traditional pathways in postsecondary education are widespread and are more prevalent among first-generation students. Students whose parents never attended college and who lived in economically disadvantaged households as teenagers are more likely to follow what we call a nontraditional trajectory. These students wait twice as long as their peers whose parents attended college to enroll in any college after high school and are more likely to interrupt their enrollment for an extended period of time once they do enter college. Most first-generation students experience at least one, and likely more than one, event that represents a detour from the traditional route leading to bachelor’s degree attainment.
Among the differences between first-generation college students and their peers,
- Forty-three percent of students of students whose parents have attended college follow a traditional trajectory, compared with only 26 percent of first-generation students.
- First-generation college students delay college attendance at twice the rate of those whose parents have some college education (32 vs. 16%).
- Thirty percent of first-generation college students interrupt their college attendance compared with only 25 percent of students whose parents had some college experience.
- Among first-generation students who enroll in college, fewer than half actually graduate; in contrast, more than two-thirds of students whose parents attended college attain a bachelor’s degree.
This study demonstrates that a postsecondary education policy agenda needs to encourage both access to and persistence in college on the part of students. Exploring the increasingly fluid and complex pathways that students follow throughout their postsecondary educational careers can help researchers and policymakers who are trying to understand—and ameliorate—the persistent socioeconomic and racial/ethnic gaps in rates of college completion. These findings can inform the design and implementation of programs aimed at supporting the increasing number of students who pursue alternative pathways to college such as those who are reentering, part-time, and transfer students.