College Enrollment & Student Demographic Statistics

General Statistics:

  • Between 2018 and 2019 there were 21.9 million students enrolled in colleges and universities
  • In 2018, 42.8% of all persons between age 16 and 24 were not enrolled in school
  • In Fall 2019 Semester, of approximately 18.2 million students:
  • 7.9 million enrolled in public 4-year colleges
  • 3.8 million enrolled in private non-profit 4-year colleges
  • 750,000 enrolled in private, for-profit 4-year colleges
  • 5.3 million enrolled in public 2-year colleges
  • Enrollment for Fall 2019 showed a -1.3% decrease compared to Fall 2018
  • The Great Recession between 2008 and 2010 saw an initial surge and decline in college enrollment:
    • 15.7 million in 2007 rose to 18.1 million in 2010
    • Between 2011 and 2012, enrollment declined by 2% compared to 1% between 2012 and 2014
  • Nationally, students represent approximately 7% of the US population
  • Between 2000 and 2017, student enrollment in postbaccalaureate studies increased by 39%
    • 2.2 million enrolled in 2000 compared to 3 million in 2017
    • By 2028, projected enrollment is expected to increase to 3.1 million students

Institutional Demographics:

Enrollment numbers vary according to the type of institution.

  • In 2018, the selectivity or acceptance rate for colleges was:
    • 27% of 4-year institutions had open-admissions policies
    • 29% accepted at least 75% of their applicants
    • 30% accepted more than half of their applicants
    • 14% accepted less than half of their applicants
  • In 2015, the distribution of undergraduate enrollment across the types of institutions as compared to 1970 was as follows:
    • 40.7% Public 4-Year in 2015, compared to 41.3% in 1970
    • 36.5% Public 2-Year in 2015, compared to 39.6% in 1970
    • 16.3% Private Non-Profit 4-Year in 2015, compared to 17.6% in 1970
    • 5% Private For-Profit 4-Year in 2015, compared to 0.2% in 1970
    • 1.3% Private For-Profit 2-Year in 2015, compared to 0.2% in 1970
    • 0.3% Private Non-Profit 2-Year in 2015, compared to 1.2% in 1970
  • In 2017, over 50% of bachelor’s’ degrees conferred concentrated in 5 fields:
    • 381,000 in business
    • 238,000 in health professions and related studies
    • 159,000 in social sciences and history
    • 117,000 in psychology
    • 117,000 in biological and biomedical sciences
  • In 2017, over 66% of associates’ degrees conferred concentrated in 3 fields:
    • 387,000 in liberal arts/sciences, general studies, humanities
    • 186,000 in health professions and related studies
    • 122,000 in business

Institutional Enrollment Statistics: 4-Year Institutions

Public 4-Year Institutions

  • 5.9 million students enrolled full-time in Fall 2019
  • As of Fall 2019, the age of students attending a public 4-year institution for the first time were as follows:
    • 973,157 students between age 18-24, decreasing of -1.8% since 2018
    • 38,411 students over the age of 24, decreasing of -5.2% since 2018
  • In 1970, 3,425,272 students enrolled in 4-year institutions compared to 7,415,000 in 2018

Private Non-profit 4-year Institutions

  • 3 million students in Fall 2019
  • 786,758 students enrolled part-time in Fall 2019
  • In Fall 2019, the age of students attending a private, non-profit 4-year institution for the first time was as follows:
    • 411,209 students between age 18-24, decreasing -3.5% since 2018
    • 24,335 students over the age of 24, decreasing-6.3% since 2018

Private, For-Profit 4-year Institutions

  • 456,846 million students enrolled full-time in Fall 2019
  • 293,039 students enrolled part-time in Fall 2019
  • In Fall 2019, the age of students attending a private, for-profit 4-year institution for the first time were as follows:
    • 17,324 students between age 18-24, decreasing -0.8% from 2018
    • 16,096 students over the age of 24, decreasing -1.3% from 2018

Institutional Enrollment Statistics: 2-Year Institutions

  • 2 million students enrolled full-time in Fall 2019
  • 3.3 million students enrolled part-time in Fall 2019
  • To compare, in 1970 2,318,956 students enrolled in 2-year institutions compared to 5,991,000 in 2018
  • In Fall 2019, the age of students attending a public 4-year institution for the first time were as follows:
    • 865,173 students between age 18-24, decreasing-1.9% from 2018
    • 121,450 students over the age of 24, decreasing -5.9% from 2018
  • In October 2018, 36.9 percent of recent associate degree recipients enrolled in 4-year schools


General Demographics:

By Age

  • In 2018, the largest percentage (52.6%) of the US population enrolled in college (undergraduate or postgraduate studies) were 20-21 years old
  • As of Fall 2019, the average age of students attending post-secondary institutions was:
    • 11 million were between age 18-24
    • In comparison, 6.1 million were over 24
    • The average age for students enrolled full-time in undergraduate programs was 21.8 years old, compared to 27.2 for students enrolled part-time
    • The average age for students enrolled in graduate/professional programs was 29.7 years old, compared to 34.9 for students enrolled part-time
  • As of Fall 2019, the age of students attending a post-secondary institution for the first time was as follows:
    • 2.3 million students between age 18-24
    • 200,800 students over the age of 24

By Gender

The effect on the level of participation in the workforce by women is important because income levels tie closely with educational attainment. To illustrate, the data below indicates that female students have surpassed male students in academic attainment.

  • In 2018, college enrollment rates for recent high school graduates between age 16 and 24 were:
    • 66.9% for male students
    • 71.3% for female students
  • In 2019, women received over 57% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US
  • 63% of women pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year public or private non-profit college completed their degree within 6 years, compared to 57% of men
  • As of 2019, women hold over two-thirds of total student loan debt, approximately $929 billion
  • Approximately 35% of college-educated US adults (over age 25) typically generate 57% of earnings in the US economy

When it comes to post-graduate studies, women are also leading the way in enrollment numbers.

By the end of 2020, it is projected 1.8 million women will enroll in post-graduate programs, compared to 1.2 million men.

Contrast this to 1980, when 874,000 men enrolled in post-graduate programs. The same year, only 748,000 female students enrolled in post-graduate programs.

By Gender Over Time

There has been a steady decline in male enrollment in college. Initially, male students have almost always outnumbered female students on campus. However, in 2015 the number of women enrolling and graduating surpassed the number of men.

  • In 1970, there were 7.3 million students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions (college)
    • 4.2 million men enrolled in college: 3.1 million were enrolled full-time, compared to 1.1 million enrolled part-time
    • 3.1 million women enrolled in college: 2.1 million were enrolled full-time, compared to 935,249 enrolled part-time
    • 5.6 million of all students (men and women) enrolled in public institutionscompared to 1.6 million enrolled in private institutions
  • In 2018, there were 16,813,000 students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions (college)
    • 7.3 million men were enrolled in college: 4.6 million were enrolled full-time, compared to 2.6 million enrolled part-time
    • 9.4 million women were enrolled in college: 5.7 million were enrolled full-time, compared to 3.7 million enrolled part-time
    • 13.1 million of all students (men and women) were enrolled in public institutions
    • 3.6 million of all students (men and women) were enrolled in private institutions

By Race/Ethnicity:

In 2018, 19,645,918 students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

  • 14.5 million students enrolled in Public institutions in 2018. In comparison, 4.1 million enrolled in private, nonprofit institutions:
    • 7.5 million white students enrolled in public institutions, compared to 2.3 million in private nonprofit institutions
    • 3.1 million Hispanic students enrolled in public institutions, compared to 460.431 in private nonprofit institutions
    • 1.7 million black students enrolled in public institutions, compared to 494,901 in private nonprofit institutions
    • 994,527 Asian students enrolled in public institutions, compared to 266,389 in private nonprofit institutions
    • 611,129 non-resident aliens enrolled in public institutions, compared to 356,841 in private nonprofit institutions
    • 55,241 students of one or more races enrolled in public institutions, compared to 141,180 in private nonprofit institutions
    • 105,105 American Indian/Alaskan Native students enrolled in public institutions, compared to 19,390 in private nonprofit institutions
    • 33,274 in public institutions were Pacific Islanders, compared to 10,602 in private nonprofit institutions

By Race Over Time:

In the 38 year span this data reflects, American Indian/Alaska Native enrollment has not improved significantly. However, other groups show improvement. In particular, Hispanic enrollment has increased more than any other group.

  • Among black high school graduates with a 3.5 GPA or better, nearly 33% attend community college
  • In comparison, 22% of white students with similar grades attend community college
  • Between 2000 and 2017, black and Hispanic female students between the age of 18 and 24 saw the highest increase in enrollment:
    • Hispanic females between age 18 and 24 increased from 25% to 41%
    • White females increased from 41% to 44%
    • Black females between age 18 and 24 increased from 35% to 40%
  • Among students of color with a 1200 or better score in the SAT/ACT, 57% of students graduate with an academic credential
  • 33% of white Americans over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree compared to 19% of black Americans and 16% of Hispanic Americans
  • Black and Hispanic students enroll in higher numbers in community colleges and less-selective four-year institutions
    • Students of color average a 21% increase in earning potential when attending more selective colleges
    • To compare, the average increase in earning potential is closer to 15% for white students attending the same selective schools
  • 56% of Hispanic and 46% of black students finish a four-year degree within six years, compared to 72% of white students

Enrollment by State

In 1970, 8.5 million students enrolled in colleges in the United States. By 2017, the number had more than doubled to 19.7 million.

  • In 2017, the states with the largest enrollment in their colleges and universities were:
    • California- 2.7 million students
    • Texas- 1.6 million students
    • New York- 1.2 million students
    • Florida- 1 million students
    • Illinois- 757,000 students

In comparison, US Service Academies cap enrollment every year. For that reason, the enrollment numbers have either stayed the same or decreased since 1970 for those colleges.

Enrollment by Economic Status

  • Students from the highest quintile of socioeconomic status are 50% more likely to enroll in college than those in the lowest quintile (28%)
  • 42% of students from the lowest quintile of socioeconomic status pursued a 2-year degree. In comparison, 32% pursue a 4-year program
  • 78% of students from the highest quintile of socioeconomic status seek a 4-year degree. In comparison, an average of 13% pursue a 2-year degree
  • 37% of students from high-income status families first enroll at highly selective institutions compared to 7% of lower-income students

A student’s SES (Socioeconomic Status) may influence their studies. Similarly, a student’s level of academic achievement can be affected by their parents’ status. They may experience challenges that could prevent them from pursuing a degree full-time. As a result, many students take 6 years to complete a 4-year degree.

The chart above reflects persistent inequality over the last 50 years for the lowest quartile. However, the number of low-income students attending college has increased. Typically these increases occur at less selective or open-admission institutions.

Enrollment: FAFSA Student Categories

Once referred to as “traditional” or “non-traditional” populations, students today rarely fit either category. A “traditional” student typically enrolls full-time in college within a year of graduating high school. In comparison, these are some of the attributes a “non-traditional” student might have:

  • part-time attendance
  • enrolled without a diploma or GED
  • working full-time while attending classes
  • financially independent of their parents.

Today, most progressive institutions refer to students as independent or dependent. Over half of college students in the US have at least one characteristic as defined in the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for an independent student.

Independent students can check one or more of these boxes:

  • 24 years of age or older
  • Married
  • Graduate/Professional student
  • Active-duty member of armed forces or veteran
  • Ward of the court/state, orphan, in foster care since age 13
  • Have legal dependents other than a spouse
  • An emancipated minor
  • Homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

Enrollment: Independent Students

In addition to the FAFSA characteristics, here are some other statistics for independent students:

  • 55% of women are more likely to be independent students compared to 46% of men
  • With the exception of Asian students, at least half of female students of color are independent
  • Independent students are more likely to have children under age 18. As a result, 51% are parents
  • Independent students usually have lower levels of income. As an example:
    • 42% of independent students live at or below the federal poverty line
    • 43% of independent students with children live at or below the federal poverty line
    • 63% of single mothers who are in college live in poverty
  • 72% of student parents have unmet financial need even after financial aid, grants, and family contributions
  • 57% of independent students are more likely to work at least 20 hours/week while in school
  • Independent students are 70% less likely to graduate within 6 years
  • Median age is 29
  • In 2015, at least 25% of college students worked full-time while attending school full-time

Single Parents

In 2014, over half of independent college students were parents of dependent children.

  • 2.1 million student parents attended 2-year colleges in 2014.
  • 71% of independent college students with dependent children are women
  • Additionally, women of color in college are more likely to be parents:
    • 47% of black women
    • 41% of American Indian/Alaska Native women
    • 39% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander women
    • 18% of Asian women
    • 32% of Hispanic women
    • 29% of white women

Single parents attending college face considerably more challenges. As an example:

  • 60% of mothers are raising their children without the support of a partner, spouse, or other family members
  • 56% of parents devote more than 30 hours a week to caring for their children
  • Understandably, 88% of single parents with children have incomes at or below 200% of the poverty line

Additionally, the average level of debt for single mothers after graduation is $3,800 higher than female students with no children. Even worse, the average level of debt a single mother owes is at least $5,000 more than male graduates with no children.


In Conclusion:

College enrollment numbers have increased since World War II. Beginning with programs like G.I. Bill, the federal and state governments have invested heavily in post-secondary education. Currently, most federal aid is provided in the form of loans and grants, next to state funding of public colleges and universities.

Populations that did not always participate in higher education are now enrolling at numbers never before seen. As a result, the average student population on campus might look very different from earlier decades. Currently, Hispanic students are the fastest-growing population of college students. Female students are increasingly leading the way in fields of study and in schools traditionally dominated by male students. Nevertheless, women are still minorities in fields such as engineering.

Educational attainment often improves socioeconomic status for students and their families. Many jobs in the fastest-growing industries in the US require a college degree. For that reason, educational achievement is critical for many students to progress in society.

Sources:

  1. National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts:  Back to School Statistics.”
  2. Parent Toolkit, “Public vs. Private Colleges.”
  3. National Center for Education Statistics, “Definitions and Data:  Who is Nontraditional?”
  4. Federal Student Aid, “Grants and Scholarships.”
  5. Full Trends in Student Aid 2019 report
  6. ESTIMATES FALL 2019
  7. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.70
  8. National Center for Education Statistics, “The Condition of Education:  Characteristics of Post-Secondary Students.”
  9. The 57 Biggest Colleges in the United States
  10. Total undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control and level of institution: Selected years, 1970 through 2028
  11. A Rising Share of Undergraduates Are From Poor Families
  12. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.20
  13. Low-Income Students at Selective Colleges: Disappearing or Holding Steady?