November 2003  
New Report Reveals Latest Trends in College Course-Taking, and Achievement

“Postsecondary Attainment, Attendance, Curriculum, and Performance,” a report released in September 2003 from the National Center for Education Statistics, provides the latest national data on attendance patterns, degree attainment, curriculum, and performance. Data in the report is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. The study also reports on attendance patterns, high school course taking, college major choices, and academic performance. The study followed 9,500 individuals who were in eighth grade in 1998, and tracks their educational experience until they were 26 or 27.

The study confirmed many common assumptions: students who start out in “highly selective” colleges and universities are more likely to earn bachelor's degrees, students who experience the most academic intensity in their high school curricula are less likely to take remedial courses in college, and students who earn at least a bachelor's degree take fewer remedial courses than those who do not complete a bachelor's degree.



  • Forty-five percent of all likely postsecondary participants earned a bachelor's degree or higher by age 26 or 27.
  • Of those who earned more than ten college credits, 51 percent earned a bachelor's degree or higher.
  • Females did, however, further close the gap with male students for math scores. The average score on the math section of the SAT has increased 19 points for females and 13 points for males in the past decade. Overall math scores are up 16 points compared to 1993.
  • Of those students who earned bachelor's degrees, the highest percentage majored in a social sciences field (19.4 percent); 17.0 percent majored in business; 11.2 percent majored in applied social sciences (including communications, clinical/counseling psychology, public administration, social work, criminal justice).
  • Attendance

  • More than half of Hispanic/Latino students (versus 37 percent of white students and 41 percent of Black students) began their postsecondary careers in community colleges.
  • Of all undergraduates who earned more than ten credits, 20 percent attended institutions in more than one state as undergraduates.
  • Twenty-four percent of bachelor's degree recipients attended institutions in more than one state as an undergraduate.
  • Among all postsecondary students, 32.3 percent attended two institutions and another 18.9 percent attended more than two. Among those who attended two institutions, 71.8 percent attended the two institutions in the same state and 28.2 percent attended institutions in two states.
  • Slightly more than 48 percent of all postsecondary students attended only one institution as an undergraduate; 32.2 percent attended two; and 18.9 percent attended more than two.
  • Of students who earned a bachelor's degree, 40.7 percent attended one institution; 36.6 percent attended two; and 22.6 percent attended more than two.
  • Twenty-four percent of students started college in a doctoral institution; 31.3 started in another type of four-year institution; 39.6 started in a community college.
  • American Indian/Alaskan Native (57.5 percent) was the largest ethnic group to start their postsecondary education in community colleges, followed closely by Hispanic/Latino (54.8 percent).
  • The Asian/Pacific Islander group had the fewest students starting in community colleges (37.1 percent) followed closely by White (37.4 percent). Forty percent of African-American students started in community colleges.
  • Curriculum

    • This report correlates higher bachelor degree attainment with more rigorous high school curricula. Students whose highest level of mathematics in high school was at the trigonometry, precalculus, or calculus level had bachelor's degree completion rates above 60 percent; for students who completed a calculus course in high school, the bachelor's degree completion rate was 83 percent.
    • The highest numbers of foreign language credits were earned by humanities majors (16.3 credits), followed by social science majors (7.8 credits) and physical sciences majors (6.3). Engineering majors earned on average only 1.6 credits in foreign languages.
    • The highest number of foreign language credits and international studies credits earned by different groups of students followed the same pattern: most were earned by humanities majors (20 credits), social sciences majors (12.5) and physical sciences majors (7.4). Engineering majors earned on average only 2.4 credits in these areas.


    • A majority of students who started out in community colleges took one or more remedial courses, compared with 19 percent of students who started in doctoral degree-granting institutions and 30 percent of those who started in other types of 4-year institutions.
    • Among B.A. degree recipients, women's GPAs were higher on average than those of men.
    • The higher the degree a student achieved (baccalaureate or higher) the fewer remedial courses he or she took: 2.4 percent of those who earned a baccalaureate or higher degree enrolled in four or more remedial courses—77.5 percent of those enrolled in none.
    • Of those students enrolled in four or more remedial courses, 19.2 percent earned only 11-29 credits and earned no degree.


    Information taken from a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, Postsecondary Attainment, Attendance, Curriculum, and Performance, published September 2003. Available at


    For this study, postsecondary attainment is broken down by race/ethnicity, sex, and socioeconomic status for different categories of student attendance (based on number of credits and institutional type). Postsecondary attendance is examined through the number of institutions students attended and in the number of states they attended them, types of institutions attended, such as community colleges, and credits taken during the summer term. College course-taking patterns are broken down by high school course taking and by college major. Finally, postsecondary performance is examined through undergraduate GPA, remedial courses, and number of postsecondary credits.



    • Men are more likely to begin in community colleges than women.
    • Of postsecondary participants studied, only 11 percent earned 10 credits or fewer by age 26 or 27.
    • Fifty-four percent of SAT-takers are female and 46 percent are male.
    • A majority of undergraduates attended high school during summer terms.
    • Strongest verbal gains among all ethnic groups were among Asians, with a 19-point increase, followed by Puerto Rican students (13 points) and White students (9 points).
    • Of students who earned more than 10 credits, 43.3 percent attended one institution, 35.2 percent attended two and 21.5 percent attended more than two.
    • Of all students studied, 82 percent attended school in one state; 15.8 percent in two states; and 2.2 in more than two states.