Transition to Higher Education

More and more high school students expect to attend college at some point, and many do so immediately after finishing high school. In 2003–04, about 7 in 10 high school seniors expected to attain at least a bachelor's degree (NCES 2006c), and in fall 2004, approximately 1.8 million high school graduates (two-thirds of this population) enrolled in a 2- or 4-year institution directly after high school (NCES 2006d). However, despite heightened educational expectations and rising college enrollment rates, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds attend college at substantially lower rates than other students, and many of them discontinue their education before graduating from high school (Berkner and Chavez 1997; Laird et al. 2007).

This section presents several indicators related to student transitions from high school to college, including high school graduation rates in the United States and in other countries and long-term trends in immediate college enrollment rates among U.S. high school graduates. These indicators provide a broad picture of how effective the nation is in providing education at the secondary level and making higher education accessible to high school students.[29]

Completion of High School

Who is counted as having completed high school in the United States? In a broad sense, a high school completer is anyone who has met the requirements of high school completion and received a regular diploma or earned an equivalent credential such as a GED certificate. Based on this definition, an NCES report (Laird et al. 2007) estimated that in 2005, 88% of those 18–24 years old not enrolled in high school had received a high school diploma or equivalency credential (figure 1-22figure.). Between 1975 and 2005, completion rates increased in all racial/ethnic groups. The rate for blacks increased faster than that for whites, narrowing the gaps between the two groups. However, although the Hispanic completion rate increased overall between 1975 and 2005, the gap between Hispanics and whites remained wide.

Largely in response to the federal NCLB Act,[30] researchers and educators have been trying to create a more rigorous definition of high school graduates. To do so, they have been focusing on on-time graduation rates and counting only students with regular diplomas as graduates (Seastrom et al. 2006a; Swanson 2003; WestEd 2004). To examine on-time graduation rates, researchers used the percentage of the incoming freshman class that graduates with a regular diploma 4 years later as a measure (Seastrom et al. 2006b).[31] Based on this measure, it was estimated that 74% of public high school students who entered ninth grade in academic year 1999 graduated with a regular diploma 4 years later in academic year 2003 (table 1-14table.). On-time graduation rates changed little from 2000 to 2004, staying in the range of 72%–74%. (See sidebar "International Comparisons of High School Completion.")

Enrollment in Postsecondary Education

On completing high school, young adults make critical choices about the next stage of their lives. Today, a majority of high school graduates choose to go to college immediately after high school (NCES 2007d). In 2005, 69% of students ages 16–24 enrolled in a 2- or 4-year postsecondary institution in the fall immediately after high school graduation, compared with 51% in 1975 (figure 1-23figure.). From 1975 to 2005, the immediate enrollment rate increased faster for females than for males. Much of the growth in the overall rate for females was because of increases between 1981 and 1997 in the rate of females attending 4-year institutions. During this period, the rate at which females enrolled at 4-year institutions increased faster than it did for their male counterparts, and faster than for either males or females at 2-year institutions.

Although the growth in immediate college enrollment over the past three decades looks impressive, wide gaps by student socioeconomic background persisted. In each year between 1975 and 2005, low-income students lagged considerably behind their high-income peers in college enrollment (appendix table 1-22Excel.). Wide gaps also existed among racial/ethnic groups, with black and Hispanic students trailing far behind their white peers. Enrollment rates differed by parent education, as well, although students whose parents had only a high school education increased their enrollments considerably.

The type of institution was also related to student racial/ethnic and family background. Berkner and Chavez (1997) found that the proportion of 1992 high school graduates who enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities increased with family income and the level of their parents' education. Four-year college enrollment rates were also higher among white and Asian/Pacific Islander students than among black and Hispanic students. On the other hand, Hispanic students and those from low-income and less-educated families were more likely to attend 2-year institutions after high school graduation. Persistent inequality on many indicators of postsecondary education (e.g., gaining access and attaining a degree) is discussed extensively in chapter 2.


Over the past three decades, high school completion rates have been increasing gradually and the white-black gaps in completion rates have been narrowing. However, on-time graduation rates, which measure the rates at which high school freshmen graduate with a regular diploma 4 years later, remained in the range of 72%–74% in the early 2000s. Although more and more students choose to enroll in college right after high school, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds continue to attend college at substantially lower rates than their more advantaged classmates.


[29] The 2004 and 2006 editions of Science and Engineering Indicators included an indicator of college remediation. However, this indicator cannot be updated for this edition because there were no new data available at the time of preparation for this chapter.

[30] NCLB requires that states include graduation rates in determining adequate yearly progress and calls for measurement of on-time graduation that explicitly excludes GEDs and other types of nonregular diplomas from the counts of graduates.

[31] Researchers examined several proxy measures of on-time graduation rates (Seastrom et al. 2006a). Although none of them is as accurate as the on-time graduation rate computed from a cohort of students using student record data, one of the methods, called Averaged Freshman Graduation Rates (AFGR), most closely approximates the true cohort rate and is used here. AFGR measures the percentage of an incoming freshman class that graduates with a regular diploma 4 years later. The incoming freshman class size is estimated by averaging the enrollment of 8th graders 5 years earlier, enrollment of 9th graders 4 years earlier, and enrollment of 10th graders 3 years earlier. This averaging is intended to adjust for higher grade retention rates in the 9th grade.

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