Consider these two statistics about degree attainment, both from trusted sources:

  • 2012 graduation rate at four-year colleges: 56 percent (from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS)
  • Bachelor’s degree attainment (or higher) in 2012: 33 percent (from the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study, ELS)

Why are they so different? The main reason is that they’re based on different populations (or denominators): IPEDS tracks students who have already enrolled in college, while ELS is based on a nationally representative cohort of high school sophomores. The benefit of following high school students over a period of 10 years is that it paints a more complete picture of the educational pipeline.

For example, according to the most recent wave of ELS data, more than 1 in 10 sophomores get stuck in the transition between high school and college and never pursue postsecondary education at all. (Even worse: students of low-socioeconomic status are about twice as likely to fall off track here.) And a far greater share of all sophomores, about 1 in 3, enroll in college but never attain a degree.

Another major difference between the two numbers is that IPEDS only tracks students who are first-time, full-time, and degree-seeking students, meaning they take at least 12 credits and have never attended another college. Arguably, these students are more likely to graduate than part-time and transfer students, who are not included in the calculation. By contrast, the ELS number includes all students and tracks them across colleges, so it provides a more comprehensive picture of our nation’s student body.

Perhaps most importantly, however, ELS participants complete in-depth surveys as sophomores, so degree attainment can be examined along with many different characteristics. For example, students who, as high school sophomores, believed they would eventually earn a bachelor’s degree fared pretty similarly to the population as a whole: Only 1 in 3 attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. This tells us that roughly 2 in 3 of these students did not reach the educational level they aspired to.

In order to help students reach their educational goals, we need to fully consider the choke points along the educational pipeline, as well as who’s getting caught where. An upcoming report in Ed Trust’s Shattering Expectations series will use ELS data to examine how initially high-achieving students fare as they progress along this pipeline. Stay tuned.