National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF)

The National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF) was developed to provide comprehensive data to test different theoretical explanations for minority underachievement in higher education. Rather than prejudging the validity of any single point of view, we sought to develop a broad database capable of testing each conceptual model, assessing its explanatory power, and specifying the circumstances under which it might apply. Specifically, the NLSF sought to measure the academic and social progress of college students at regular intervals to capture emergent psychological processes hypothesized by investigators such as Steele and Ogbu, while measuring the degree of social integration and intellectual engagement suggested by Tinto, and to control for pre-existing background differences with respect to social, economic, and demographic characteristics.

To realize this vision, we designed a survey that includes equal-sized samples of white, black, Asian, and Latino freshmen entering selective colleges and universities. The baseline survey (Wave 1) consists of face-to-face interviews that compile detailed information about the neighborhood, family, and educational environments students experienced before entering college. Wave 1 also assesses respondents' attitudes, aspirations, and motivations at the time of entry. The follow-up surveys (Waves 2-4) took place via telephone interviews in the Spring of each academic year to gather information from the same students about their social, psychological, and academic experiences on campus.

By combining retrospective data captured in the baseline survey with prospective information compiled in years one through four, we sought to create a longitudinal database stretching from childhood through college graduation. This design provides a basis for linking pre-college experiences to behaviors and psychological states emerging in the course of higher education, and for sorting out the direction of causality between determinants and outcomes. Those dropping out of college or transferring to another institution are followed, interviewed, and retained in the survey to avoid building selection biases into the sample.

The institutions we chose to sample mirror those examined by Bowen and Bok (1998) in their College and Beyond Survey. Our principal modification was the addition of the University of California at Berkeley, which is not only a large and selective institution (currently rated as number one among public universities by US News and World Report), but also a school that recently abandoned its historical commitment to affirmative action (as a result of Proposition 209, which was approved by California's voters in 1995). The other modification was to include historically black colleges and universities, although ultimately only one of four historically black colleges invited to participate - Howard University - agreed and provided the necessary access to carry out the survey.

In total, 28 institutions agreed to participate, giving a final institutional participation rate of 80%. Of the students contacted to participate, 3924 completed the survey, for an overall response rate of 86%. The final sample included 959 Asians, 998 whites, 1,051 African Americans, and 916 Latinos.

For more information about the NLSF, please visit the project website.

Public Use Data

As of Summer 2008 all four waves of the NLSF are available for public use and all waves can be merged to the baseline data (Wave 1) using the respondents' unique case ID.

Wave 1, the baseline survey, includes detailed information on student's background, such as family structure, neighborhood and school characteristics, at age 6, 12, and one year prior to entering college. Wave 1 also includes information about student's preparation for college, peer networks, and racial/ethnic attitudes. Wave 1 data include summary variables about the respondent's household. A separate file (household roster) contains information about each household member.

In July 2005, we added two new files for public release. First, we released the indices presented in tables B1-B12 of Source of the River. Second, we released an institutional characteristics file that contains detailed information about the schools each respondent attended, such as their racial make-up and average class size, measured both in 2001-2002 and 1998-1999. Each of these files can be merged to the public dataset using the respondent's unique case ID.

Waves 2 and 3 were released in September 2006. Wave 2 contains detailed information about courses taken, grades earned, social networks, time use, living arrangements, financial matters, relationships, and students' perceptions of prejudice on campus. Wave 3 contains much of the same information, plus the factors in the students' decision to attend college, information on high school SAT scores, majors chosen, career plans, and employment while in school.

In June 2008 we released Waves 4 and 5. Both waves contain similar information as Waves 2 and 3 for junior and senior years. In addition, Wave 4 includes information about expected degree, mentoring received, extracurricular group involvement, personal health and emotional problems. Wave 5 includes information about terms studied abroad, college debts, future plans for employment, career, and higher education, and respondents' perception of the own/other racial and ethnic groups in terms of identity, incidences of discrimination and prejudice, as well as certain opinions and behavior.

In June 2008 we also released information on graduation rates (Graduation Data). This information has been drawn from offices of the registrar at the 28 colleges and universities in the NLSF, and the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a nonprofit organization providing post-secondary and secondary student degree, diploma and enrollment verification. The data includes information on whether respondents graduated within 4 or 6 years and a summary measure of the paths taken by the NLSF students in pursuit of a bachelor's degree.

For more detailed information about the NLSF is available on the NLSF website.

Registration Required

To access these datasets, please login or register as a user of the data archive.