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August 2008, Vol. 131, No. 8

Who goes to college? Evidence from the NLSY97

Alison Aughinbaugh

Uing the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), this article examines two questions: (1) who attends college by age 20? and (2) of those who go to college, who completes the first year? Both the decision to go to college and attrition from college have attracted a great deal of attention from parents, policymakers, and colleges, in part because college graduates earn substantially more than those without a degree.

Over a lifetime, higher earnings from a college degree reflect differences in starting salaries and in earning trajectories. Using CPS data from March 1998, 1999, and 2000, Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newberger estimate that, over a worklife, individuals with a bachelor’s degree working full time, year round, earn about one-third more than individuals who do not finish college and earn almost twice as much as individuals with a high school diploma.1 A 1999 Department of Education report reviews studies that compare those who complete a college degree with those with a similar number of credits, but who have not earned a college degree.2 On the whole, studies indicate that a bachelor’s degree adds significantly to a man’s earnings, and an associate’s degree adds significantly to a woman’s earnings, over having a comparable number of college credits. 

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1 Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newburger, "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings," Current Populations Reports P23–210 (U. S. Census Bureau, 2002).

2 College for All? Is There Too Much Emphasis on Getting a 4-Year College Degree? (U.S. Department of Education, January 1999).

Related BLS programs

National Longitudinal Surveys

Related Monthly Labor Review articles

Education data in the NLSY79: a premiere research tool.Feb. 2005. 
The NLSY97: an introductionAugust 2001.

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