Where Are They Now? A “First Look” at 2002 High School Graduates

Tim Van SoelenUncategorizedLeave a Comment

Graduates at Stony Brook UniversityFirst Look is an intriguing longitudinal study that tracks the 2002 class of sophomore students through their next ten years of life. Not an easy undertaking, so I was excited to see what the Institute of Education Sciences uncovered through this study. This research was meant to paint a picture about the factors and circumstances related to the performance and social development of the American high school student over time. You might think of this project as a photographer taking multiple snapshots during high school and throughout their postsecondary years. These “pictures” allow us to see some of life’s markers that signify the transition from adolescence into adulthood. These big life moments, such as educational attainment, starting a career, marriage and family, and the perceived impact of the college experience are statistically described in this research.  A couple of their selected findings that caught my attention:

Among those who began their postsecondary education within 3 months of high school completion, 42 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree and another 11 percent had earned a master’s degree (or higher) by 2012; among those who began their postsecondary education 13 or more months following high school completion, 6 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree and another 1 percent had earned a master’s degree (or higher) by 2012.

This finding made me wonder about the “gap year” conversation that occurs in many households in Europe and increasingly in North America as well. Does a young person’s decision to take a year off to work, go on a missions adventure, go backpacking through Europe, or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity make a difference in whether they complete a college education? Is such a decision is a good choice for mid- to late-adolescents to make? This data would not likely endorse such a decision if college completion was an identified life goal. There are, however, many anecdotal stories that would certainly go against this data (I could share a few from the incredible college students I have the privilege of working with). Interesting findings, nonetheless.

High school sophomores in 2002 with subsequent postsecondary enrollment reported the following student loan amounts as of 2012: 40 percent reported no borrowing; 16 percent reported borrowing more than $0 but less than $10,000 in student loans; 20 percent reported borrowing at least $10,000 but less than $25,000 in student loans; 13 percent reported borrowing at least $25,000 but less than $50,000 in student loans; and 11 percent reported borrowing $50,000 or more in student loans

The amount of college debt continues to rise, a phenomena that frightens many, myself included as the parent of two college students and one more possibly on the way. According to the The Project on Student Debt, the average amount of student load debt for the class of 2011 was $26,500, a five percent increase from approximately $25,350 in 2010. 5% a year may or may not seem like much but it means the 2022 graduating class will be opening up their first checkbook (as if those will still be around!) with a red number of $45,000 or more .

However, we have to balance this information with recent statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, revealing that college graduates earning 50 percent more than their peers who completed only high school and 22 percent more than their peers who completed an associate’s degree. Is getting that college degree worth it? Financially, the numbers would support a positive response. But we are getting caught up in a very utilitarian response to education, simply looking at the financial outputs. As investors in Christian education, we realize that our outputs are not simply measured in dollars or lifetime earnings. Investing in P-12 Christian schools and a comprehensive Christian college experience is, to quote MasterCard, “priceless.” I cannot put a dollar amount on the holistic formation that is happening in the lives of my children. My return on investment is incredible and eternal.

If we do need some quantitative evidence that an investment in private education makes a difference as measured by the completion of a higher education degree, this table is quite encouraging. Private and Catholic school graduates were much more likely to acquire a Bachelor’s degree or higher than they public school peers, almost twice as likely. Private education is certainly not causal in these data as family, peer groups, church involvement and other variables contribute to these comparisons.  And, a college degree is certainly not required to contribute to the common good or fulfill the vocational calling God has for each of us. These results are encouraging to those who are investing in Preschool-12th grade Christian education.

A helpful First Look. We have provided a link for you to download the full study and I would encourage you to take a deeper look at some of the additional findings from the sophomore class of 2002. I wonder what the Second Look will reveal…



  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

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