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Changes to First-Time Freshmen and College-Going Data

The Commission has reprocessed all of the data for UC and CSU from 2000 forward to rebuild the "First-Time Freshman" table. Two new columns will allow researchers to use the Commission's old criteria or using the total numbers. (More detail about the table structure and the column definitions can be found in the Data Element Dictionary.) All pages on the Commission's website that use first-time freshmen will include data using the new method unless otherwise noted on the page starting in February, 2011.

Why have the First-Time Freshmen numbers changed?

Historically, the Commission received a limited number of data items about each student enrolling in postsecondary education. Additionally, data were provided only for the fall semester or quarter. Each student record included gender, ethnicity, student level, age, part-time/full-time status, first-time, continuing or returning status, discipline, high school of origin, and postsecondary institution. It was not possible to determine from these fields which students were recent high school graduates and starting college for the first time. In order to report information about students transitioning from high school to college, the Commission used some proxies to determine the number of recent high school graduates who attended a postsecondary institution.

Historically the Commission noted that:

  • Most students who intended to pursue postsecondary education (especially at a four year college) graduated from high school in the spring and started their college classes in the fall semester or quarter of that year.
  • Most students are about 18 years old when they graduate from high school.
  • Most students start their college experience as freshmen.
The Commission used this to develop a proxy for recent high school graduates starting college for the first time based on the following data elements that the Commission received from the segments:
  • Student Level must be freshman
  • The student must be first-time and not continuing or returning
  • The student must be 19 years of age or younger
Unfortunately, as with any proxy for information, this set of criteria missed students. Specifically:
  • Those students who are older than 19 when they graduate from high school.
  • Some students take time off before starting college. Thus when they enter college they are older than 19.
  • Some students take college classes while in high school and enter college with enough units to start as something other than a freshman.
  • Some students enroll in Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and other programs that allow students to earn college units allowing them to enter college as something other than a freshman.
All of these students were not captured as First-Time Freshmen using the Commission's proxy for making this determination.

Historically, the number of students who were missed was small and not statistically significant when looking at trends and regional or state-wide numbers.

This situation changed in January, 2011. A user of the Commission's data noticed that the numbers reported for first-time freshmen by the Commission and those reported by the University of California (UC) were significantly different for 2009 (the latest data available at the time). The user did some research and discovered that this divergence had been growing for several years. (Thanks for letting us know, by the way.) In 2000, the numbers differed by about 3% -- statistically small; by 2009 the difference was 14% -- statistically significant.

In order to resolve this issue, Commission staff contacted the researchers at UC and the reason for the discrepancy was found. High school course offering had been changing in the last decade. More schools were offering AP, IB and other programs resulting in more students entering college with a high number of college credits.

The proxy used by the Commission obviously needed to be changed in order to reflect what is happening in high school and college-going.

Luckily with the passage of Assembly Bill 1570 (Chapter 916, Statutes of 1999) (AB 1570), the Commission started to receive more detailed information about each student. The new data includes additional fields and allows the Commission to determine a "first-time freshman" using the same criteria used by UC research staff. Commission staff also contacted research staff California State University (CSU) and the California Community Colleges (CCC) to determine if changes need to be made in the way their data was processed for first-time freshmen counts. CSU gave the Commission their criteria. CCC said that for current data, the Commission's methods were valid. In the future, however, CCC would add a "first-time freshman" flag to make processing easier.

So, why are there seniors (and juniors and sophomores) in the "First-Time Freshmen" data?

The students that enter college for the first time with a significant number of units are, for all intents and purposes, still "freshmen". Most will still need to take the same number of courses to complete their degree as a student that entered with no units because the units they brought with them to college may not be applicable to courses required for their chosen field of study. The Commission will begin using the term "First-Time Student" on the website and in reports to be more generic and correct when describing these students. However, due to the fact "first-time freshmen" is so ingrained in our lexicon, either term may be used and will refer to the same set of students.


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