Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College

Issue/Topic: Curriculum; High School; High School--College Readiness; Postsecondary Success--Completion
Author(s): Adelman, Clifford
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Education
Publication: Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College
Season: Winter 2006

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education published a study called Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Completion. It was a study based on the history of the High School Class of 1982. The Toolbox Revisited uses a more recent cohort. It reinforces the original study, with some even stronger conclusions.

Starting in high school, and moving into and through college, what makes a difference in completing a bachelor's degree? NOTES FROM ECS: This is a "must-read" for policymakers and their staff.


Postsecondary Benchmarks

  • Less than 20 credits by the end of the first calendar year of enrollment (no matter in what term one started, whether summer, fall, winter, spring) is a serious drag on degree completion.

  • We falsely believe that beginning students drop out of higher education in appalling numbers by the end of their scheduled first academic year of attendance. In fact, about 90 percent of traditional-age beginning students turn up somewhere (maybe not at the first school attended) and at some time (maybe not in the fall term) during the subsequent calendar academic year (which we measure as July 1 through June 30). However impressive this percentage, the quality of persistence counts more, and, for a third of these students, the quality of persistence leaves much to be desired.

  • More than 60 percent of the students in the sample under investigation enrolled during summer terms. Undergraduates are not only more geographically mobile, but have shattered observance of the traditional academic calendar. Summer term credits are more than metaphors for high octane persistence: Earning more than 4 credits during those terms held a consistently positive relationship to degree completion, and gave African-American students, in particular, a significant boost in hypothetical graduation rates.

    Student Uses of Time

  • Student uses of time in undergraduate careers are now more important than their uses of place. In other words, when students do something academic has a more significant relationship to degree completion than where they do it. . . . The longer students wait, the less likely they will finish a degree.

  • Part-time attendance by whatever means, as Carroll (1989) labeled it, proved “hazardous” to degree completion health.

  • Continuous enrollment is a factor of attendance patterns, and another marker of the student’s use of time. It proves to be overpowering: with 16 other variables in play, continuous enrollment increases the probability of degree completion by 43 percent.

    Purposeful Migration Versus ""Swirling""

  • Formal transfer from a community college to a four-year college and formal transfer from one four-year college to another were positively associated with degree completion, but wandering from one school to another was not.

  • Did change-of-major have any influence on degree attainment? It did not, principally because, with few exceptions, community college transfer students come in to the four-year institution from a general studies program and automatically are classified as “change-of-major” the minute they enter a specific program at the four-year school.

    Student Academic Performance

  • Earning grades that place one in the top 40 percent of first-year GPA for the whole cohort is a strong—and positive—contributor to academic momentum, and remains in the account of degree completion throughout the histories of both the class of 1982 and the class of 1992.

  • The theme of quality-of-student-effort, reflected in grades, is strengthened when the canvas covers the student’s entire undergraduate career.There are three such points: first calendar year GPA, cumulative GPA for the first two calendar years, and GPA as of the last date of attendance, whether or not a degree was earned. A rising trend in grades fits with attainment, contributing positively and significantly.

  • One of the most degree crippling features of undergraduate histories is an excessive volume of courses from which the student withdrew without penalty and those the student repeated. Excessively lax withdrawal and repeat policy ultimately blocks general access.

  • Among students who attend a fouryear college at some time, expectations are distinctly secondary to one’s uses of academic time and to one’s academic performance.

  • Of student demographic characteristics, only one—socioeconomic status—was significantly associated with degree completion, though in a modest manner.

  • Sufficient numbers of students who took remedial classes successfully moved through them so that remediation did not make a strategic difference in degree completion.

  • Policy Implications/Recommendations:

    The high school curriculum component of "Academic Resources."

  • This is not a case of "little-to-modest" effort or a small population. It is a megawork in progress, much of which depends on students� reading skills on entering high school. If students cannot read close to grade level, the biology textbook, the math problems, the history documents, the novel�all will be beyond them. And if high schools are not offering a full academic curriculum, there is little hope. Not all high schools come close to offering a full curriculum portfolio, and minority and low-SES kids are disproportionately affected.

  • It's not enough to count Carnegie Units in broad subject areas. We have to know not only what is being taught, but whether it matches the demands of lower division course work in colleges and community colleges.

  • Begin the transition process in high school with expanded dual enrollment programs offering true postsecondary course work so that students enter higher education with a minimum of 6 additive credits to help them cross that 20-credit line. Six is good, 9 is better, and 12 is a guarantee of momentum.

    First-year credit generation

  • Institutions should monitor and report the quality (as much as the fact) of persistence.

  • Use of summer terms

  • Strategic enrollment management can move more sections of high demand courses into summer terms, offer credit-bearing internships in summer terms, and engage in other creative initiatives that will also smooth out the utilization of institutional resources over what has become an "academic calendar year."

  • No delay of entry

  • Keep the student continuously enrolled, even part-time.

  • Excessive no-penalty withdrawals and no-credit repeats

  • Excessively lax withdrawal and repeat policy ultimately blocks general access. And in terms of degree completion, such policies do students no favors.

  • For full study: http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/toolboxrevisit/toolbox.pdf

    Research Design:
    Uses the most recently completed of the national grade-cohort longitudinal studies conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. Looks at the High School Class of 1992 student histories derived from transcript records -- college and high school transcripts -- from 1992 through December 2000. It allows the maximum length of postsecondary time (8.5 years) for students to earn degrees no matter how many institutions they attended .

    National cohort of high school students who were scheduled to graduate in 1992 and who were followed through December 2000 (8.5 year period)

    Year data is from:


    Data Collection and Analysis:
    In addition to regular interviews with these students, the data set on which this study draws includes the critical components of high school and college transcripts. This study looks at student histories derived from transcript records. It follows the student, not the institution.


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