Iowa State University

Iowa State University

Strategic Plan 2005-2010

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Report Brief

Access & Persistence: Findings From 10 Years of Longitudinal Research on Students


The purpose of this report was to use data from three federally sponsored national longitudinal surveys of students to ascertain which students persist towards their degrees and what happens to students after they enroll in college. The three federally sponsored surveys are the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) Longitudinal Study, and the Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) Study. Detailed descriptions of these studies can be found at


College Students Today

  • Women now make up 55% of the undergraduate student body compared with earlier years when men dominated postsecondary enrollment. Men, however, still dominate in fields such as the physical sciences, computer sciences, and engineering.
  • Minority attendance at four-year institutions is approximately 30%, up from 20% in 1989-90. Hispanic and African American students are not proportionally represented within the college-age population.
  • Twenty percent of undergraduates are born outside of the United States or have at least one foreign born parent, with 11% speaking a language other than English in their home.
  • Only 40% of today's students fit the "traditional" student definition. Enrolling fulltime in college directly after graduating from high school with their parents taking care of most of their financial responsibilities.
  • Working while attending school and waiting to enroll post high school are increasingly common among today's college students. Seventy-seven percent of college students at four-year institutions work with 59% averaging 23 hours per week.

Access to College

  • Family influence was a strong indicator of a young person's likelihood of attending a four-year institution. The likelihood of attending increased with the level of parents' education.
  • Peers had a strong influence on at-risk students attending college. More at-risk students applied to college if their friends planned to attend.
  • Curricular choices in high school also had a strong influence on attending college. Specifically, a strong math curriculum can moderate the effects of parents' education on college enrollment.
  • The cost of attending college was a significant obstacle for both middle- and low-income students with financial aid moderating this obstacle to some extent.
  • Families must make an annual income of approximately $70,000 to afford a public four-year institution without financial aid and at least $100,000 for a private.
  • On average aid to low-income families in 1995-96 covered approximately two-thirds of their higher education budget.

Staying in School

  • Institutional rates greatly understated postsecondary persistence, which factors in transfers and those who persist beyond five years.
  • Choices and experiences that influenced students' persistence include:
    • Enrollment in a rigorous high school program rather than a basic high school curriculum (87% versus 62% persistence).
    • Enrollment at a community college to save costs does not increase the likelihood of achieving a four-year degree. Fifty-seven percent of students who started at four-year institutions achieved their degree compared with 8% of students who started at a community college in the same year. However, when bachelor degree seeking students did transfer to a four-year institution their persistence rate was the same as students who initially entered the four-year institution.
    • The annual attrition rate for non-traditional students is higher than traditional students, but the gap narrowed over time.
    • Both attending part time and working more than 15 hours per week reduced the likelihood of persistence.
    • Borrowing increased the likelihood of persistence, by reducing the need to work.
    • First generation college students were twice as likely to leave before students with a college educated parent (23% versus 10%).

Time to Degree

  • The longer a student took to earn a degree the more costly the education was to both the student and the institution.
  • Thirty-six percent of students earned a bachelor degree in four years, and 28% in five years.
  • Thirty-seven percent of those students attended more than one institution, and 48% took a break of at least four months.
  • Fifty-one percent of graduates that stayed at their first institution finished in four years, and 80% in five years.


The author suggests the following recommendations for practice.

  • Understanding the changing demographics of today's college student is essential in appreciating the nuances of access and persistence.
  • Awareness of students' choices and experiences that influence persistence can lead to better support for students.
  • College programs designed to keep nontraditional students in school might be most effective in the first-year.
  • Graduates who stay at their first institution have higher persistence rates.
  • Advising students that opting for an easier schedule in high school is not likely to be beneficial.
  • Motivating potential first generation college students before high school might help in deterring the effect of parents' level of education on access.
  • Students need not be discouraged form borrowing reasonable amounts to finance their education in place of working.


Choy, S. P. (2002). Access & persistence: Findings from 10 years of longitudinal research on students. Washington, DC: American Council on Education Center for Policy Analysis.

Submitted by R.M. Johnson, March 2004. This is a report summary and excerpts are quoted directly from the text.

The campanile

Iowa State was the first chartered land-grant institution.