1 Attrition: College Students Paths Into and Out of Fields Statistical Analysis Report NCES U. S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
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3 Attrition: College Students Paths Into and Out of Fields Statistical Analysis Report NOVEMBER 2013 Xianglei Chen RTI International Matthew Soldner Project Officer National Center for Education Statistics NCES U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
4 U.S. Department of Education Arne Duncan Secretary Institute of Education Sciences John Q. Easton Director National Center for Education Statistics Jack Buckley Commissioner The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting, analyzing, and reporting data related to education in the United States and other nations. It fulfills a congressional mandate to collect, collate, analyze, and report full and complete statistics on the condition of education in the United States; conduct and publish reports and specialized analyses of the meaning and significance of such statistics; assist state and local education agencies in improving their statistical systems; and review and report on education activities in foreign countries. NCES activities are designed to address high-priority education data needs; provide consistent, reliable, complete, and accurate indicators of education status and trends; and report timely, useful, and high-quality data to the U.S. Department of Education, the Congress, the states, other education policymakers, practitioners, data users, and the general public. Unless specifically noted, all information contained herein is in the public domain. We strive to make our products available in a variety of formats and in language that is appropriate to a variety of audiences. You, as our customer, are the best judge of our success in communicating information effectively. If you have any comments or suggestions about this or any other NCES product or report, we would like to hear from you. Please direct your comments to NCES, IES, U.S. Department of Education 1990 K Street NW Washington, DC November 2013 The NCES Home Page address is The NCES Publications and Products address is This report was prepared for the National Center for Education Statistics under Contract No. ED-07-CO-0104 with RTI International. Mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. Suggested Citation Chen, X. (2013). Attrition: College Students Paths Into and Out of Fields (NCES ). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. For ordering information on this report, write to ED Pubs, U.S. Department of Education P.O. Box Alexandria, VA or call toll free ED-Pubs or order online at Content Contact National Center for Education Statistics (800)
5 iii Executive Summary Producing sufficient numbers of graduates who are prepared for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics () occupations has become a national priority in the United States. To attain this goal, some policymakers have targeted reducing attrition in college, arguing that retaining more students in fields in college is a low-cost, fast way to produce the professionals that the nation needs (President s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology [PCAST] 2012). Within this context, this Statistical Analysis Report (SAR) presents an examination of students attrition from fields over the course of 6 years in college using data from the 2004/09 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/09) and the associated 2009 Postsecondary Education Transcript Study (PETS:09). In this SAR, the term attrition refers to enrollment choices that result in potential graduates (i.e., undergraduates who declare a major) moving away from fields by switching majors to non- fields or leaving postsecondary education before earning a degree or certificate. 1 The purpose of this study is to gain a better understanding of this attrition by: determining rates of attrition from and non- fields; identifying characteristics of students who leave fields; comparing the coursetaking and performance of leavers and persisters; and examining the strength of various factors associations with attrition. Data from a cohort of students who started their postsecondary education in a bachelor s or associate s degree program in the academic year were used to examine students movement into and out of fields over the subsequent 6 years through Analyses were performed separately for beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students. For brevity, these two groups are frequently referred to as bachelor s or associate s degree students in this study. Selected findings from this SAR are described below. 1 In this study, major fields include mathematics; physical sciences; biological/life sciences; computer and information sciences; engineering and engineering technologies; and science technologies. For a detailed list of the fields designated as in this SAR, see appendix C.
6 iv EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Entrance About 28 percent of bachelor s degree students and 20 percent of associate s degree students entered a field (i.e., chose a major) at some point within 6 years of entering postsecondary education in At the bachelor s degree level, biological/life sciences was the most popular field, attracting 11 percent of students, and mathematics and physical sciences were the two least popular fields, attracting 2 3 percent of students. At the associate s degree level, a higher percentage of students chose computer/information sciences (9 percent) than other fields (1 6 percent). Attrition Rates in and Non- Fields Many of these entrants left several years later by either changing majors or leaving college without completing a degree or certificate. A total of 48 percent of bachelor s degree students and 69 percent of associate s degree students who entered fields between 2003 and 2009 had left these fields by spring Roughly one-half of these leavers switched their major to a non- field, and the rest of them left fields by exiting college before earning a degree or certificate. Attrition rates in non- fields were as high as or higher than those in fields. At the bachelor s degree level, students in humanities, education, and health sciences had higher attrition rates (56 62 percent) than did those in fields (48 percent), and students in business and social/behavioral sciences had comparable attrition rates (50 and 45 percent, respectively) as did students in fields. A closer look at how students left their fields reveals that proportionally more students in education (42 percent) and health sciences (35 percent) switched majors than did students in fields (28 percent). At the associate s degree level, students in selected non- fields had attrition rates ranging from 57 percent in health sciences and 66 percent in business to 70 percent in education and 72 percent in humanities. These rates were generally comparable to that in fields (69 percent). Proportionally more students in fields (33 percent), however, switched majors than did students in business (26 percent) and health sciences (20 percent).
7 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY v Important Factors Associated With Attrition In this study, a multinomial probit (MNP) model was used to examine how various factors were associated with attrition, after controlling for related factors. This model was used because the outcomes of entrants can fall into multiple categories that is, they can persist and eventually earn a degree in a field, they can switch majors and pursue a non- field, or they can quit school entirely without earning a degree or certificate. While a bivariate analysis showed that attrition was correlated with a wide range of factors, including students demographic characteristics, precollege academic preparation, types of first institution enrolled, and coursetaking and performance, the MNP analysis examined all these factors simultaneously and revealed more information than what bivariate analysis could yield. In terms of switching majors to non- fields, the MNP results showed that the intensity of coursetaking in the first year, the type of math courses taken in the first year, and the level of success in courses bore stronger associations with this outcome than did many other factors. Specifically, taking lighter credit loads in courses in the first year, taking less challenging math courses in the first year, and performing poorly in classes relative to non- classes were associated with an increased probability of switching majors for entrants at both the bachelor s and associate s degree levels. Accumulating higher levels of withdrawn/failed credits was also a critical factor for switching majors among bachelor s degree entrants. With respect to the outcome of leaving college without earning a degree or certificate, the MNP results showed that entrants overall college performance and their level of success in courses were better predictors than many other factors. Poor performance in college (as reflected by a lower cumulative grade point average [GPA] through 2009) and high levels of withdrawn/failed courses were associated with an increased probability of dropping out of college for both bachelor s and associate s entrants. Less success in courses than in non- courses (as reflected by earning lower grades relative to non- grades) was also associated with an increased probability of dropping out of college for entrants at the associate s degree level. The MNP analysis also revealed several other patterns that were different from those in the bivariate results. While the bivariate analysis showed that female entrants at both degree levels left fields more frequently by switching majors than their male counterparts, the MNP analysis yielded this result only among associate s degree students. In addition, the bivariate analysis showed that at the
8 vi EXECUTIVE SUMMARY associate s degree level, entrants from various income backgrounds had similar rates of leaving fields by switching majors; after controlling for the other variables in the MNP model, however, those from low-income backgrounds were found to have a lower probability of switching majors than their counterparts from high-income backgrounds. The MNP results further indicated that low- and high-performing entrants may exit fields in different ways. At both the bachelor s and associate s degree level, the probability of exiting fields by dropping out of college was higher for low-performing students (i.e., those with an overall college GPA of less than 2.5) than for high-performing students (i.e., those with an overall college GPA of 3.5 or higher), while the probability of leaving fields by switching majors was higher for students in the high-performing group than for their peers in the low-performing group. More research is needed to understand the underlying motivation for leaving fields, particularly among top students. Finally, the MNP analysis confirmed several patterns observed among bachelor s degree entrants in the bivariate analysis. All other factors being equal, bachelor s degree entrants who first attended public 4-year institutions had a higher probability of leaving by switching majors than those who started at private nonprofit 4-year institutions. Bachelor s degree entrants who were male or who came from low-income backgrounds had a higher probability of leaving by dropping out of college than their peers who were female or came from high-income backgrounds, net of other factors. Similarly, bachelor s degree entrants who first attended institutions that were among the least selective had a higher probability of leaving due to dropping out than students who first attended highly selective institutions.
9 vii Contents Executive Summary... iii List of Tables... viii List of Figures... x Introduction... 1 Background... 2 Literature Review... 3 Definition of Key Terms... 5 Data Sources and Sample... 6 Limitations... 8 Entrance and Attrition in Postsecondary Education Entrance: A Brief Overview Attrition Rates in and Non- Fields Destination for Major Switchers Characteristics of Leavers Coursetaking and Performance in Postsecondary Education Coursetaking and Performance in the First Year Coursetaking and Performance Over 6 Years in College Factors Associated With Attrition: A Multinomial Probit Analysis Model Specifications Factors Associated With Attrition Summary References Appendix A Glossary... A-1 Appendix B Technical Notes and Methodology... B-1 Appendix C Classification of Major Field of Study in BPS:04/09...C-1 Appendix D Classification of Postsecondary Courses in BPS:04/09...D-1 PAGE
10 viii List of Tables TABLE PAGE 1 Among beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who entered and selected non- fields, percentage distribution of their entrance time into these fields, by major field entered: Percentage of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who entered but subsequently left fields, by demographic, precollege academic, and postsecondary enrollment characteristics: Percentage of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who attempted credits, percentage who earned credits, average credits earned, and percentage of all credits earned that were credits during the first year of enrollment, by entrance and persistence through Average marginal effects of various characteristics on the probability of students leaving fields among beginning bachelor s students who entered fields between 2003 and 2009, and the average predicted probability of leaving fields among various groups of entrants Average marginal effects of various characteristics on the probability of students leaving fields among beginning associate s students who entered fields between 2003 and 2009, and the average predicted probability of leaving fields among various groups of entrants B-1 Item response rates and nonresponse rates for student-level variables used in this study... B-4
11 LIST OF TABLES ix TABLE PAGE B-2 Average marginal effects of various characteristics on the probability of students leaving postsecondary education without a degree or certificate among beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who did not enter fields between 2003 and 2009, and the average predicted probability of leaving postsecondary education without a degree or certificate among various groups of non- entrants... B-8
12 x List of Figures FIGURE PAGE 1 Percentage of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who entered and selected non- fields: Percentage of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who left and selected non- fields after their entrance into these fields, by major field entered: Percentage distribution of the last major field among beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who entered fields and later switched majors to non- fields: Percentage distribution of the highest level of math course in which beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students earned credits during the first year of enrollment, by entrance and persistence through Percentage of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who withdrew from or failed to complete any courses, and percentage of withdrawn or failed courses out of all courses attempted during the first year of enrollment, by entrance and persistence through Grade point average (GPA) earned by beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students in courses during the first year of enrollment, by entrance and persistence through Percentage distribution of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students by difference between their first-year grade point average (GPA) for and non- courses, by entrance and persistence through
13 LIST OF FIGURES xi FIGURE PAGE 8 Average number of credits earned by beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students during their enrollment through 2009, and of those who earned any credits, percentage of all credits earned that were credits, by entrance and persistence through Percentage distribution of the highest level of math course in which beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students earned credits during their enrollment through 2009, by entrance and persistence through Percentage of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students who withdrew from or failed to complete any courses, and percentage of withdrawn or failed courses out of all courses attempted during their enrollment through 2009, by entrance and persistence through Grade point average (GPA) earned by beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students in courses during their enrollment through 2009, by entrance and persistence through Percentage distribution of beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students by difference between overall grade point average (GPA) for and non- courses during their enrollment through 2009, by entrance and persistence through
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15 1 Introduction Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics () fields are widely regarded as vital to a nation s economy. While the United States has long been held as a world leader in scientific and technological innovation, it is facing fierce competition from abroad in producing and retaining talent (National Science Board 2010a). Various sources show that: the mathematics and science performance of U.S. elementary and secondary students lags behind their peers in many other nations (Fleischman et al. 2010; Gonzales et al. 2008; Provasnik et al. 2012); the rates at which U.S. undergraduates choose majors trail those of several key competitors (National Science Board 2010b); the United States has one of the lowest ratios of to non- bachelor s degrees in the world (National Science Board 2012); and top U.S. students, who have great potential to become future science and technology innovators, are eschewing careers in fields (Bettinger 2010; Lowell et al. 2009; Zumeta and Raveling 2002). Rising concerns about the ability of the United States to compete in the global economy have led to numerous calls for national efforts to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing degrees and careers in fields (National Academy of Science 2005; National Governors Association 2007; National Research Council 2012; National Science Board 2007). In 2009, the Obama administration launched the Educate to Innovate campaign to improve the participation and performance of U.S. students in (The White House n.d.). The U.S. Department of Commerce projects that employments will grow faster than non- employment. 2 A recent policy report by the President s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST 2012) urged colleges and universities at all levels to produce more graduates, announcing that if the United States is to retain its preeminence in science and technology and remain competitive in a fast-changing economy, it will need 1 million more professionals over the next decade than it is currently projected to produce. 2 The U.S. Department of Commerce projects that employment will grow 17 percent between 2008 and 2018 while non- employment will grow at a slower pace, increasing by 10 percent (Langdon et al. 2011).
16 2 INTRODUCTION Background Postsecondary education plays a critical role in building a strong workforce for the future. The U.S. postsecondary education system, however, frequently loses many potential graduates. National data revealed that more than half of freshmen who declared majors at the start of college left these fields before graduation (Chen 2009; Higher Education Research Institute 2010), and more than half of bachelor s degree recipients switched to non- fields when they entered graduate school or the labor market (Lowell et al. 2009; National Science Board 2012). Other studies indicated that many leavers were actually highperforming students who might have made valuable additions to the workforce had they stayed in fields (Seymour and Hewitt 1997; Lowell et al. 2009). To produce more graduates in fields, some recent U.S. policies have focused on reducing students attrition from fields in college, arguing that increasing retention by even a small percentage can be a cost-efficient way to contribute substantially to the supply of workers (Ehrenberg 2010; Haag and Collofello 2008; PCAST 2012). In light of our nation s need to build a strong workforce for the future, an examination of attrition in U.S. postsecondary education is warranted. Using data from the 2004/09 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/09), this Statistical Analysis Report (SAR) tracks a cohort of beginning postsecondary students over 6 years (from 2003 to 2009), presenting the most recent national statistics on attrition in college. Capitalizing on the transcript data collected through BPS:04/09, this study also provides a first look at coursetaking at the national level, detailing how participation and performance in undergraduate coursework are associated with attrition. Throughout this study, the term attrition is used to refer to enrollment choices that result in potential graduates (i.e., those who declare a major) leaving fields. attrition can occur at any time in college. The purpose of this SAR is to deepen understanding of this attrition by addressing the following questions: What is the attrition rate in postsecondary education? Is it higher than attrition rates in other fields? Who leaves fields? Into which fields do they move? Do leavers and persisters differ in terms of their coursetaking and performance? How are various student, high school, and postsecondary institutional and coursetaking characteristics associated with attrition when taking into
17 INTRODUCTION 3 account interrelated factors? Which factors are most associated with attrition? To address these questions, this SAR is organized into three main sections. The first section focuses on the first two questions, presenting nationally representative statistics on entrance and attrition rates, comparing attrition rates between and non- fields, and examining the characteristics of students who leave fields and the fields into which they move. The second section takes a closer look at coursetaking and performance, determining whether coursetaking patterns and grades of leavers differed from those of persisters. Built on bivariate results in the prior sections, the third section makes use of a multinomial probit model to examine the associations of various factors with attrition, while taking into account the interrelationship of these factors. To provide a context for the analysis, the following section presents a brief review of research literature, defines several key terms used in this study, describes the data sources and sample used for the analysis, and discusses some limitations of this study. Literature Review Although one-third of freshmen express interest in majors before starting college (National Science Board 2012), the actual enrollment rate is lower: for instance, majors accounted for just 14 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in U.S. postsecondary education in (Snyder and Dillow 2011). For various reasons, a significant proportion of students who initially intend to study fields abandon them several years later. A recent study found that a total of 56 percent of postsecondary students who declared majors in their freshman year left these fields over the next 6 years (Chen 2009). Although attrition rates of similar magnitude were reported elsewhere (Bettinger 2010; Goulden, Frasch, and Mason 2009; Kokkelenberg and Sinha 2010; Lowell et al. 2009), little research has compared attrition rates across different fields to determine whether high attrition is unique to fields or appears in other fields as well. A number of plausible factors may underlie attrition. Studies have frequently found that women, underrepresented minorities, 3 first-generation students, 4 and those from low-income backgrounds leave fields at higher rates than their counterparts (Anderson and Kim 2006; Hill, Corbett, and Rose 2010; Griffith 2010; Huang, Taddese, and Walter 2000; Kokkelenberg and Sinha 2010; Shaw and 3 Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives. 4 Students who are the first members of their families to attend college.
18 4 INTRODUCTION Barbuti 2010). In addition, attrition occurs more frequently among students with weaker academic backgrounds (Astin and Astin 1992; Kokkelenberg and Sinha 2010; Mendez et al. 2008; Shaw and Barbuti 2010; Strenta et al. 1994; Whalen and Shelley 2010). Next, there is evidence linking attrition to such attitudinal factors as motivation, confidence, and beliefs about one s capacity to learn subjects (Burtner 2005; Huang, Taddese, and Walter 2000). Finally, degrees often take longer to complete than other degrees, so financial aid may take on added importance in retaining students in programs (Fenske, Porter, and DuBrock 2000; Whalen and Shelley 2010). Anecdotal evidence and small-scale studies have identified several course-related factors that may explain why students lose their interest in programs, including negative experiences encountered in gatekeeper or introductory math and science courses 5 (Barr, Gonzalez, and Wanat 2008; Crisp, Nora, and Taggart 2009; Mervis 2010; Seymour 2001; Seymour and Hewitt 1997; Thompson et al. 2007); limited exposure to coursework in the first 2 years (Bettinger 2010); and poor performance in courses, especially relative to performance in non- courses (Ost 2010; Rask 2010; Seymour and Hewitt 1997; Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner 2011). These findings, however, have not been extensively investigated using nationally representative data. Students experiences or perceptions of institution and workplace context/climate may be related to attrition as well. Such factors include inadequate academic advising, career counseling, and institution support; feelings of isolation in fields because too few peers pursue degrees and too few role models and mentors are available (mainly pertinent to females and underrepresented minorities); distaste for the competitive climate in departments (women especially); and perceived discrimination on the basis of sex and/or race/ethnicity in the workforce (Blickenstaff 2005; Carrell, Page, and West 2010; Chang et al. 2011; Daempfle 2003; Eagan et al. 2011a; Espinosa 2011; Fouad et al. 2010; Ost 2010; Price 2010; Seymour 2001; Thompson et al. 2007). These contextual and climate factors are now accepted as areas worthy of investigation for explaining the departure of students (especially women and minorities) from fields at various points in college. 5 Such negative experiences may include, for example, large class sizes, passive learning techniques, lack of direct contact with faculty, language barriers associated with international instructors or teaching assistants, and faculty being perceived as valuing their research above teaching. Some of the gatekeeper courses may be purposely designed to be rigorous and unsupportive as a way to filter out the weakest students (Eagan et al. 2011b).
19 INTRODUCTION 5 The review of past research suggests that students decisions to leave fields are likely to arise from a multitude of factors, underscoring the need to examine models of attrition that include multiple factors simultaneously. In light of this review, the analyses presented in this SAR encompass as many related factors as available in BPS:04/09. Past research has already provided extensive insights into demographic and prior college characteristics; therefore, this study pays special attention to coursetaking and performance in college. Although it is not possible in this analysis to determine exactly how students curricular experiences affect their decisions to leave fields, the study represents a first step toward understanding the relationship between coursetaking and attrition using nationally representative data. Definition of Key Terms To facilitate discussions of the analysis and its results, the following provides the definitions of key terms used in this study. fields can include a wide range of disciplines. 6 In this study, the following fields are classified as : mathematics; physical sciences; biological/life sciences; computer and information sciences; engineering and engineering technologies; and science technologies. 7 For a detailed list of the fields designated as in this SAR, see appendix C. Non- fields, by definition, include all fields that are not fields. Rather than combining all non- fields into one group, this study specifically compares fields with the following five fields: social/behavioral sciences; humanities; business; education; and health sciences, because these fields had adequate sample sizes for analysis in BPS:04/09. For more detail on the fields in each major category, see appendix C. entrance is used to refer to a student s majoring in a field of study in college. In BPS:04/09, entrance can be identified at three points in time: during the 2004 base-year survey and during the 2006 and 2009 follow-up surveys. In this study, any student who reported a major at one or more of these three points is considered a entrant between 2003 and As an example, see the National Science Foundation (NSF) definitions of these fields at 7 Due to small sizes of sampled students, science technology majors were combined with engineering/engineering technology majors in this study. The resulting category is labeled as engineering/technologies.
20 6 INTRODUCTION leavers are a subgroup of entrants who leave fields either by switching their major to a non- field or by leaving postsecondary education without earning a degree or certificate (for brevity, the latter group is frequently referred to as students who dropped out of college or college dropouts below). In BPS:04/09, leavers consist of entrants who (1) had not attained any degree or certificate by 2009 and were not enrolled in that year; (2) were enrolled in a non- field in 2009; (3) were not enrolled in 2009 and had attained one or more degrees only in non- fields; or (4) were not enrolled in 2009 and had attained more than one degree (one in a field) but whose most recent degree was in a non- field. 8 persisters are a subgroup of entrants who remain in fields throughout their college career. In BPS:04/09, persisters consist of entrants who either were enrolled in a field in 2009 or, if not enrolled that year, had attained their most recent degree in a field. attrition rate is the number of leavers divided by the total number of entrants. Data Sources and Sample Data Sources The analysis described in this report is based on data from the 2004/09 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/09) and the associated 2009 Postsecondary Education Transcript Study (PETS:09). BPS:04/09 followed a cohort of students who began postsecondary education in for a total of 6 years, through BPS sample members were initially identified in the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:04). 9 8 Fewer than 20 sampled beginning bachelor s and associate s degree students attained more than one degree by 2009, with one or more of these degrees in a field. Most of them first attained a certificate or an associate s degree in a field and then switched out of a field and attained a bachelor s degree in a non- field. Thus, it is reasonable to consider these students as leavers though they have attained a degree at some point during college. If students began as a major and later transferred to another institution where they changed their major, they were considered to have switched majors. 9 NPSAS:04 is a nationally representative sample of about 90,000 undergraduate, graduate, and firstprofessional students in about 1,600 postsecondary institutions in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico who are eligible to participate in federal Title IV student aid programs. It is a comprehensive study that examines how undergraduate, graduate, and first-professional students and their families pay for postsecondary education.
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