Answers to Educational Attainment Questions Depend on How Data is Measured, Study Shows

May 4, 2015

Kurie Fitzgerald: [email protected], 202-994-6461
Nicole Carlotto, [email protected], 202-994-6466
Postsecondary education creates opportunities for individuals and prepares them to join the workforce. For this reason, it is important that we understand how educational attainment is measured. A new National Science Foundation-funded report from the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Development (GSEHD) examines the ways in which different methodologies of data gathering impact benchmarks for educational attainment. 
Descriptive data on who goes to college, who completes degrees, and how far people have progressed through the educational system cannot explain why certain outcomes exist. But the data can provide an understanding of where the successes lie and where problems need to be addressed.
The authors of the report, Sandy Baum, research professor at GSEHD, Alisa Federico Cunningham, an independent consultant, and Courtney Tanenbaum, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, answered five key questions about educational attainment with data from eight sources, including the American Community Survey, the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. They discovered that precise answers to questions about educational attainment—and the policy implications that follow—depend on the data sources and definitions chosen, as well as informed interpretation of the data. 
“It’s clear, for example, that there are large differences in educational attainment across demographic groups,” said Sandy Baum.“But exactly how large these differences are depends on how attainment is measured, how the groups are defined, and which data are used.” 
The researchers found that state rankings differ depending on whether the measure is the percentage of adults holding bachelor’s degrees or the percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds granted bachelor’s degrees each year. For example Iowa ranks 23rd in the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree (32 percent) but first in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2009–13 relative to the number of 18 to 24-year-olds (13 percent). New Jersey ranks third in the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree (41 percent) but 38th in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2009–13 relative to the number of 18 to 24-year-olds (5 percent). 
Additionally, educational categories include a range of outcomes that are not consistent across racial or ethnic groups. According to Current Population Survey (CPS) data, although 10 percent of all adults with a high school diploma or equivalency hold GEDs, only 4 percent of Asians are in this category.
Further elucidating that there are disparities when it comes to examining different data, the report found that CPS excludes individuals living in group housing such as military barracks, correctional facilities and nursing homes, but these groups are included in the American Community Survey (ACS). According to CPS, there is a 10.6 percentage point gap between the percentages of blacks and whites with any postsecondary degree. Relying on ACS data increases this gap to 12.2 percentage points. 
The report found comparisons of educational attainment across age groups can be misleading because many people earn degrees later in life. In 2013, fewer 25 to 29-year-olds (43 percent) than 35 to 39-year-olds (47 percent) had postsecondary degrees. But ten years earlier, when those who are now 35 to 39-years-old were 25 to 29-years-old, only 37 percent had postsecondary degrees. Tracking adults who were 35 to 39-years-old in 2013 back 10 years shows that in 2003, 37 percent of 25 to 29-year-olds had postsecondary degrees. Five years later, when these individuals were 30 to 34-years-old, 44 percent of them had postsecondary degrees; in 2013, when they were 35 to 39-years-old, 47 percent had postsecondary degrees.
Further, Ms. Baum and team point out gender gaps in STEM degree attainment depend on which fields are included. In 2011-12, 36 percent of degrees in basic science, engineering and mathematics went to women. Relying on the NSF definition of STEM, which also includes the social sciences and psychology, raises the percentage of degrees going to women to 47 percent. If health professions and science engineering technology fields (but not social sciences and psychology) are included, the percentage of degrees going to women rises to 59 percent.
About the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development
The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development prepares leaders for research, policy, and practice in the fields of teaching, counseling, administration, human and organizational learning, and education policy. The School also offers opportunities for experienced professionals to advance and enrich their education. The programs are designed to meet the broad needs of persons who seek knowledge and skills necessary to provide effective learning and teaching, research, services, and leadership in a variety of settings that cover the entire life span.