Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dr. James Ainsworth

Second Advisor

Dr. Elisabeth Burgess

Third Advisor

Dr. Dawn Baunach


Traditional high school graduates are typically seen as the standard for “successful” high school graduation because they earned the customary credential of a diploma and did so along a culturally prescribed timeline (i.e., in Spring of the 12th grade). While high school dropouts have long been recognized and researched as clearly deviating from cultural expectations of earning the standard credential and doing so “on time,” they are not the only type of “off time” student to do so. Early graduates, like dropouts, also pursue a non-traditional and off time high school exiting path, but because of a lack of prior research into these types of students, it is not clear how they compare to the traditional “on time” students. In this dissertation, I investigate early graduates in U.S. high schools to generate an initial basis for understanding how these early graduates differ from the normative group of on timer graduates in terms of their demographics, theoretically important considerations and school engagement (including academic and, separately, social engagement dimensions). This investigation also probes into important differences across several conceptualized groups of early graduates and how each of these groups compare to each other and on time graduates. This investigation utilizes several waves of the nationally representative Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS) from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). I use a life course theory perspective to inform conceptualizations of these student groups and my analysis of important post-high school life transitions and trajectories patterns among early graduates.