University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Unequal Pathways through American Universities

Student pathways through the American higher education system are complex and entail more than the choice between continuation and dropout. The four-year college system requires students seeking a bachelor’s degree to pass through a series of transitions that are marked by the achievement of credit thresholds in each year of study. At those junctures students make critical decisions about their progress: whether to enroll for sufficient credits to ensure timely completion, whether to enroll for fewer credits, or whether to leave school for a limited period of time. This project overcomes the simplistic view of discrete choices between enrollment and nonenrollment and takes a close look at the cumulative nature of the attainment of U.S. students at four-year colleges and the social inequalities arising in this process. Detailed transcript data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS-88) and multinomial transition models provide evidence on the shape of and social inequality in four-year college careers. We describe distinct trajectories through college and show that they strongly depend on students’ decisions at earlier stages of their college careers. Transitions through college are also found to be strongly related to students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, we show that the penalties incurred from unfavorable earlier choices is greater for disadvantaged students. By fully appreciating the cumulative nature of educational pathways through college we provide an important new view on the complex routes to college completion and trace an important source of the socioeconomic gap in college completion. The relatively rigid structure of the U.S. four-year college system appears to produce strong path-dependent and status dependent cumulative advantages for high-status students.


Education & Training, Inequality & Mobility, Postsecondary Education, Racial/Ethnic Inequality