Longitudinal Data

Research: Sophomores a Decade Later

longitudinal study of high school students 

By 2012, almost everybody who was a high school sophomore had completed high school (96 percent); the majority had enrolled in college (84 percent); more than half had attained a college degree (52 percent); and a third had earned a bachelor's degree (33 percent). Eight in 10 were employed (82 percent); more than a quarter were married (28 percent); and a third had children (33 percent). A sizable number lived with parents (28 percent), and just a few had gone through divorce, separation or the loss of a spouse through death (3 percent).

Those are a few of the outcomes shared in a major study undertaken by the National Center for Education Statistics. The "Education Longitudinal Study of 2002" was begun in spring 2002 with a survey of more than 15,000 sophomores from public and private high schools across the country. The goal, as stated in a recently released (and voluminous) report, was to understand the extent to which those high schoolers had "achieved various milestones of early adulthood as of 2012."

Over the next decade, these individuals were surveyed three more times — in 2004, 2006 and 2012. The last data collection, done in 2012, occurred at what the researchers called a "key stage of life for the 2002 sophomore cohort": Most respondents were "26 years old and had been out of high school for eight years, and many also had completed postsecondary education and formally entered the labor market."

Back when they were still sophomores, nine in 10 students reported a desire to attend college, and close to three-quarters expected to finish a four-year or higher degree. A substantial number told researchers that they considered future work and family life important: 84 percent rated being able to find a steady job as "very important"; 80 percent also rated "marrying and having a happy family life" as very important too.

But this was the generation that came of age during the dot-com bubble, the attacks of September 11, the Great Recession and myriad changes in the business of higher education, including higher tuition and a greater reliance on ever-larger student loans.

Over the course of the decade marked off by aspirations on one end and attainment on the other, a few patterns emerged.

Researchers found a significant association between high school academic experiences and later educational attainment. Specifically, those students who expected to attain a master's or higher degree, who took calculus and advanced science courses in high school, who earned an academic grade point average of at least 3.5 or who exhibited a minimal risk of academic failure while in 10th grade were more likely to have earned a bachelor's or higher degree a decade later than their fellow students. Among respondents who reported being employed, those who took calculus in high school earned higher hourly wages in their 2012 job than did their counterparts who took no or low-level math courses. More broadly, those employed people who showed a "low risk of academic failure" or who earned a GPA of 3.5 or higher in high school also made more on the job than peers. Whereas high school graduates earned a median of $15 per hour, those who achieved postsecondary degrees earned $21. Those in STEM occupations have fared the best with a median hourly rate of $22 compared, for example, to $17 for respondents in "business/management" or healthcare.

Those "traditional milestones of adulthood" — leaving home and starting a family — showed delays with this cohort compared to previous generations. For instance, in 2012, when most of the 2002 sophomores had reached their mid-20s, just 31 percent of cohort members had married, and 33 percent had at least one child. Among people who were eighth graders in 1988, by 2000 when most of them had reached their mid-20s, 46 percent had married and 41 percent had at least one child. In comparison, co-habitation was much more common; among the 2002 group, 23 percent were living with a partner in 2012 compared to just 1 percent of the 1988 cohort at the same point in their lives.

Among the newer generation, about 70 percent of those who lacked a high school diploma and 53 percent of those who had only a high school education had children in 2012, compared with just 13 percent of bachelor's degree holders and 9 percent of master's or higher degree holders.

Living with parents was also on the rise, according to the researchers, who noted that in 2014, living with parents "became the most common living arrangement for young adults ages 18 to 34 for the first time since the 1960s." Among 2002 respondents, 23 percent were living with their parents in 2012; doing so was more common among men than women (25 percent versus 21 percent).

In employment, this group of young people was hard hit by the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Four in 10 (41 percent) said they'd been unemployed at least once between 2009 and 2012, for an average of 10 months; nearly a quarter (23 percent) had experienced three or more unemployment "spells." Those who had more education tended to have less unemployment; 53 percent of people who failed to finish high school and 58 percent of GED or equivalency holders had been out of work at least once since 2009 for an average of 13 months, compared with 30 percent to 36 percent of those with a bachelor's degree or more education for an average of seven months. Blacks and Hispanics suffered more and longer periods of unemployment than Whites.

The report also touched on "underemployment," the situation in which a person works in a job that doesn't require the level of education he or she has. While 29 percent of four-year degree holders and 10 percent of those with a master's or higher degree reported that their job had no tie to their degree, 41 percent of those with an associate's degree and 42 percent of those with undergraduate degrees worked in jobs unrelated to their areas of study.

The complete findings are openly available in the 275-page report, "Early Millennials: The Sophomore Class of 2002 a Decade Later," on the NCES website here.