How many students are enrolled in college in the United States? Who is a typical college student? We explore this higher education topic across several categories for a deeper understanding of who is enrolling in college, and where.
- It was projected that 19,900,000 students would be enrolled in college in the United States for the fall 2018 semester.
- Projections for fall enrollment in the 2018 semester estimated that 11,200,000 newly enrolled students would be female and that 8,700,000 newly enrolled students would be male.
- For the fall 2018 semester, it was projected that 12,100,000 students would enroll full-time and that 7,800,000 students would enroll part-time.
- Further, it was projected that 12,300,000 enrolled students would be under the age of 25, while 7,600,000 students would be 25 or older during the fall 2018 semester.
Just from the data above, it’s easy to see that there are multiple ways to think about college enrollment—by course load, age group, gender, total number, and even several other categories, such as ethnicity, type of college attended, status as a parent, and many others.
We take a closer look at just a few of the ways to divvy up student enrollment data in this article. There may be a few surprises along the way.
General Enrollment Data
We’re starting with a look at some general enrollment numbers before we dive into the details. These numbers include all college types and genders, and unless otherwise specified, all ethnic groups and course loads.
These numbers reflect total enrollment for college students in the United States for the time periods specified in each chart.
As shown in the chart above, male enrollment and female enrollment over the ten-year period covering 2005-2015 have mirrored each other, with about 3,000,000 more female students being enrolled per year than male students.
Each group hit peak college enrollment rates in 2010 and 2011 and has seen a slow decline in enrollment since those peak years.
Annual enrollment was projected to increase steadily in 2016, 2017, and 2018; and was projected to surpass the 2010-2011 peak levels in 2019, taking seven years to reach and exceed the peak enrollment levels once again.
Our next spotlight centers on the various ethnicities enrolled in postsecondary education colleges in the United States in fall 2017.
In the above chart, we can see that the largest majority of enrolled college students in fall 2017 across all campuses were white, although the gap wasn’t as large at private four-year, for-profit institutions.
Hispanic students made up the second largest segment of the enrolled student population at public colleges, while black students were the second largest segment of enrolled students at private colleges.
Has that been consistent over time? We next look at enrollment trends among various ethnicities over a 17 year period.
In the chart above, you can see that enrollment remained fairly steady over the 17 year period from 2000 to 2017 for Asian/Pacific Islander students, students of two or more races, and American Indian/Native Alaskan students.
Postsecondary enrollment has risen steadily for Hispanic students, while declining slightly for black students, and dipping sharply for white students over that same period.
It should be noted that no data was available for students of two or more races for the year 2000.
General Enrollment by State
How do enrollment rates vary from state to state? We took a look at college enrollment for each state in 2000 and compared that to the 2015 numbers for each state.
When we refer to enrollment by state, we mean the number of college students enrolled in colleges in a particular state for a particular year, not the number of a state’s residents attending college.
As you can see from the lengthy chart above, colleges in West Virginia, Utah, Texas, New Hampshire, Idaho, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona all saw enrollment rates increase by at least 50 percent over the 15-year span between 2000 and 2015.
Every state saw an increase in college enrollment over that period, although some states saw much smaller growth over the same time span. For example, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, and Rhode Island each saw growth of less than 10 percent during that 15 year time period, for an average of less than 1 percent per year.
As expensive as college is, it might be thought that higher education is only attainable for the wealthy—but are those the students who are actually enrolling in college? We decided to find out. In the charts below, we break down enrollment by economic status.
In the chart above, we are comparing low-income students who enrolled in college within one year of graduating high school or obtaining a GED to all low-income individuals in the United States who had recently graduated from high school or completed their GED and were under the age of 25.
We did the same for middle-income enrollees by comparing them to all middle-income individuals in the United States who had recently graduated from high school or obtained their GED and were under the age of 25. The same method was used to obtain high-income numbers, as well.
For the purposes of this chart, “low-income” means the bottom 20 percent of income earners, “high income” is the top 20 percent of income earners, and “middle-income” is the 60 percent in between the two.
In 2010, just over 50 percent of low-income individuals who had graduated high school enrolled in college within one year of graduating or obtaining a GED. In 2016, that percentage rose to nearly 70 percent—an almost 20 percent jump in just six years. No other income category saw such a dramatic increase during the same period.
Middle-income enrollment remained fairly steady during this period, with about two-thirds of recent middle-income high school graduates enrolling in college within one year of graduation or obtaining a GED.
High-income students had the highest enrollment percentages across all income levels, never dropping below 70 percent during the period, and reaching a high of nearly 84 percent in 2014.
So, it does appear that the lowest income bracket had the lowest percentage of college enrollment, while the middle-income group had enrollment that was consistently higher than the lower income bracket but lower than the high-income bracket.
2015 was the only year in which the percentage of low-income students enrolling in college within one year of graduation or obtaining a GED was higher than the percentage of middle-income students enrolling in college within one year of graduation or obtaining a GED.
We also wanted to isolate the income brackets and look at their individual enrollment trends over time, as shown in the charts below.
In the chart above, the percent of low-income students who enrolled in college within one year of graduation or obtaining their GED was compared to all low-income students who had graduated in rent years or obtained their GED (under the age of 25).
Since 2000, enrollment has risen from 49 percent to 65 percent. The lowest enrollment point came in 2001, followed by a low of almost 46 percent in 2013.
The highest enrollment rate came in 2015, with 69 percent of all recent low-income high school graduates or GED earners enrolling in college within one year of graduating or obtaining the GED.
In the above chart, you can see that middle-income earners remained fairly steady in their enrollment patterns over a 16 year period. Enrollment went from 60 percent of middle-income students in 2000 to just slightly over 65 percent in 2016, a 5 percent gain.
The lowest enrollment level was 56 percent in 2001, with the second lowest level of enrollment in 2003. The peak year for enrollment was in 2009, with nearly 67 percent (or about two-thirds) of all middle income recent high school graduates or GED earners enrolling in college within one year of graduating or obtaining their GED.
Keep in mind these are students under the age of 25.
Finally, the chart above displays the trends among enrollment patterns for high-income students between 2000 and 2016.
There was very little variation in enrollment rates over the 16 years in our chart, with the lowest enrollment percentages never dropping below 76 percent. From 2000 to 2016, enrollment increased by around 6 percent.
The lowest year for enrollment was in 2000, with just over 76 percent enrollment, while the highest enrollment point came in 2009, with around 84 percent of all high income recent high school graduates or GED earners enrolling in college within one year of graduating or obtaining a GED.
Remember that these figures are comparing all recent high-income high school graduates or GED earners who were under the age of 25 to the number of recent high-income high school graduates or GED earners who enrolled in college within one year of graduating.
Next, we jump to the differences (if there are any!) between public college enrollment patterns and private college enrollment patterns. And we give a quick run-down on the difference between the two types of schools as a jumping off point.
Public Colleges versus Private Colleges
What if you choose to go to a private college? What’s the difference between a private college and a public one, anyway? Simply put, private schools don’t receive government funding, and public institutions do, whether it’s from the state or federal government, or both. (This includes tax dollars.)
Private schools get all of their funds from private donors, endowments, and fundraising campaigns, meaning their budgets rely on the generosity of others to cover all of their expenses.
It’s generally assumed that private schools have smaller enrollment than public schools. Let’s find out if that’s true! The chart below shows enrollment at both public and private schools for the ten-year period of 2006-2016.
As shown above, there has historically been a large discrepancy between the number of students attending private colleges and the number attending public colleges. This may be due to cost (private colleges, on average, tend to cost quite a bit more than public colleges), on-campus living requirements, location, or even admissions procedures.
Now that we’ve examined enrollment by the general numbers, let’s get down to the specifics and break things down even further by reviewing additional demographics, such as traditional and non-traditional students—two terms you’ve probably heard thrown around often but which can be confused. Do you know all the nuances between the two?
Traditional College Students
A student is considered “traditional” if they enroll in college within one year after graduating high school and are attending college full-time. They also have high school diplomas instead of GEDs or other equivalents. Traditional students are not parents and are not financially independent of their parents.
The chart below displays the percent of students who enrolled in college within one year of graduating high school. Because of the short turnaround between high school graduation and college enrollment, these students would be considered traditional students.
As you can see from the data above, the rate of students entering college shortly after high school hovered consistently between 65 and 70 percent for the ten-year time span we reviewed, 2006-2016.
That’s not much variation over time and shows that about two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college within a year of graduating.
We also wanted to look at how many Americans in the traditional college age range (18-24) were actually enrolling in college.
To do that, we pulled historical data showing enrolled traditional students (students in the 18-24-year-old age group) as a percentage of the total U.S. population of that age group over time.
If, for example, there were 1,000,000 people aged 18-24 in the United States this year, what percentage of those individuals are enrolled in college?
In the chart above, you can see that no more than around 42 percent of American 18-24 year-olds were enrolled in college at any given time between 2007 and 2017.
We also examine gender and ethnicity as a percent of the general population of traditionally-aged college students for the same time period.
This chart shows the distribution of males and females attending college as a percent of the general population for the 18-24-year-old age group.
Note that for this chart, the individual male and female percentages were averaged together for each year when calculating the percent of the total population.
As you can see, female enrolled students slightly outnumbered male enrolled students across every year in our chart.
Finally, the chart below divides the 18-24-year-old age group into ethnicity as a percent of the total population for the same age group.
Now the above chart may look a little strange to you—it may seem odd that there was roughly the same percentage of American Indians attending college in 2014 as white students during that same year. However, that’s not what this chart conveys.
Actually, we are again looking at the student population compared to the general population in that same age group. So, among all American Indians aged 18-24 in 2014, just over 41 percent were attending college. At the same time, among all white Americans aged 18-24 in 2014, 43 percent were attending college.
The 100 percent attained in this graph means that 100 percent of the students attending college for any given year was accounted for through the ethnicities here in the chart. So for 2014, remember only 40 percent of the population aged 18-24 was attending college. But among that group of college attendees, the ethnic breakdown is as noted above.
For those of you who love statistics and want to break it down for yourselves, add the individual percentages for each ethnicity for a given year, and then divide by the total number of ethnicities (seven) to arrive at the percentage of enrolled students for the year.
Due to the built-in margins of error in the source data, it won’t be a perfect match but will get you close.
We’ve reviewed traditional students with a few quick data points—so now let’s turn our microscope to the non-traditional students and check out how they compare with their traditional peers.
Non-Traditional College Students
How do you know if you’re a non-traditional college student? According to government data, there are a few main characteristics that differentiate this student group from their so-called “traditional” peers.
One is the length of time between high school graduation and college enrollment. If more than a year has passed between the two, you are a non-traditional student.
If you are only enrolled part-time, you would also be considered non-traditional.
If you were a parent or single parent at the time of college enrollment, received a GED or other diploma equivalent, or worked full-time while taking classes, you are also a non-traditional student.
Surprisingly, if you were financially independent of your parents (but otherwise fit the profile of a traditional student), you are also considered a non-traditional student.
Of course, some students could fit into many of these categories. For instance, a single parent might also be taking classes part-time or working full-time, or both.
We take a look at a few non-traditional categories below including age, single parent status, part-time enrollment status, GED earners, and students who are working full-time.
The chart below shows non-traditional students broken out by age-group. Remember, traditional students, are those who enrolled less than one year after high school, and would be between 18 and 20 years old at the time of enrollment. If it took an 18-year-old student six years to graduate, they would be 24 when they obtained a diploma.
We compared the age groups of 18-24, 25-34, and 35 and over to look at who typically attends which type of campus.
Only 10 percent of all students enrolled at public four-year colleges were over the age of 25 in 2017.
For two-year colleges (community colleges discussed below), you can see that the older students make up a larger percentage of enrollees.
The total percentage of students over the age of 25 attending two-year public colleges was right at 21 percent in fall 2017. That’s slightly more than double the total attending public four-year colleges that same year.
Broken down further, the percentage of students between 25 and 34 years old attending a two-year campus is nearly double that of those attending a public four-year college, and the percentage of students over the age of 35 attending a two-year school is more than double that of those over the age of 35 attending a public four-year college.
When comparing the ages of those attending private four-year colleges, you can see that the percentage of non-traditional students was actually higher in fall 2017 than at public four-year colleges. This was true for both non-profit and for-profit private colleges.
Surprisingly, a full 13 percent of all students attending private, four-year, not-for-profit colleges are over the age of 25. That number is even higher at private four-year, for-profit colleges, as shown below.
As you can see in the chart above, more than one-third of students attending private, four-year for-profit campuses are between the ages of 25 and 34, and more than one-quarter are over the age of 35. That’s a total of 67 percent of students who are non-traditional, or two-thirds of all students attending four-year, private for-profit colleges.
Older students aren’t the only types of non-traditional students whose enrollment varies between private and public colleges.
In fact, 30 percent of single mothers attending college are enrolled at private for-profit colleges—which is three times the enrollment rate for women who don’t have children at those same schools.
This group of non-traditional students has doubled since 1999, and enrollment numbers from selected years are shown below.
In 1999, there were 988,135 single mothers enrolled in college. In 2012, there were 2,050,481 single mothers enrolled in college. That is a 108 percent increase over a 12 year period.
Of those students who obtained their GEDs, 35 percent enrolled in college within one year of passing the exam, while 45 percent enrolled in college within three years of passing the GED exam.
And an astounding 90 percent of college students with GEDs remained enrolled in college.
Part-time students are also considered non-traditional, even if they fall into the “traditional” age range. We break out the number of part-time versus full-time enrollees in the graphs below.
As shown above, there is a fairly large gap between the number of students who are enrolled full-time and those who are only enrolled part-time, which has remained steady over time. A little over one-third of all students were enrolled part-time in fall 2017 compared to just under two-thirds who were enrolled full-time.
Below, we compare part-time enrollment by age group across public and private schools for the fall 2017 semester.
As shown in the chart above, the youngest students had the highest percentage of part-time enrollment across all college types except private four-year for-profit schools. At those schools, it was practically a tie between the 25 to 34 year-olds and 35 and over age groups, at 40 percent and 41 percent respectively.
It should also be noted that at private four-year colleges, both nonprofit and for-profit, there were far more part-time students over the age of 25. At private non-profit four-year schools, 62 percent of part-time students were 25 years or older, and at private for-profit four-year campuses, 81 percent of part-time students were over the age of 25.
At both public four-year and two-year colleges, less than half of part-time students were over the age of 25.
Finally, we take a look at part-time status broken out between male and female students.
It’s not surprising that more women were both enrolled part and full-time since more women, in general, are enrolled in college than men.
According to a 2015 report, 25 percent of college students worked full-time while also attending school full-time, making them non-traditional students. Further, 40 percent of students worked at least 30 hours per week while also taking a full load of classes.
While not technically working full-time, ten additional hours per week would put them in that classification.
What’s the difference between a community college and other types of colleges? Community colleges, once known as “junior colleges,” provide two-year programs of study. Most now offer associate’s degrees or certificate programs.
Typically, they don’t offer on-campus housing and are sometimes also called commuter colleges because everyone must commute into campus daily since there’s no place to live on the campus. However, some community colleges have now begun to allow students to live on campus.
Back in the day, some community colleges had poor reputations. It was believed that these schools were not hiring qualified teachers and offering easy, high-school level classes that offered little challenge to students.
However, now there are many quality instructors—often the same professors from the local four-year colleges and universities—and top-notch class offerings at community colleges, and class schedules are pretty flexible, designed to fit around working adults’ lives. In fact, the majority of students attending community college only attend classes part-time.
As shown in the previous chart, older students attend public two-year campuses at a much higher percentage than public four-year campuses, perhaps because of the flexibility and lighter course-load offered by community colleges.
Public two-year colleges (as shown in the chart below) are also typically much less expensive to attend than public four-year colleges.
Many community colleges have agreements in place with nearby four-year colleges and universities to accept classes from the two-year school as credits toward a bachelor’s degree.
Before planning on that course of action, however, make sure that the school you want to obtain your degree from accepts coursework from a two-year institution and if all credits transfer, or if only certain credits transfer.
If you are only interested in obtaining an associate’s degree, then a two-year college may be your best (and least expensive!) option.
There are four types of financial aid available to college students: loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study. Almost all of them require a completed FAFSA (Federal Application for Student Aid) before your application will be considered.
Loans are funds that must be paid back after a certain time period. Just like a credit card, funds are advanced for education costs but must be repaid according to the terms of the loan. There are nearly as many types of college loans as there are colleges, so the terms can differ greatly from loan to loan.
According to an article by Forbes magazine, student loan debt was at nearly $1.5 trillion in 2019. That’s up from $1.08 trillion in 2013.
Before taking out a loan for college expenses, be sure you understand the terms of the loan, including when you must begin making repayments, whether or not the interest rate will remain constant over the life of the loan, and what happens if you make a late payment.
It’s also important to understand how a college loan could impact your credit for future purchases, such as a car or home before taking on the additional debt.
Grants are funds that do not need to be repaid and are typically awarded based on financial need. There are federal grants, state grants, private grants, and some colleges even provide grants to their students.
Scholarships are available from multiple sources and awarded based on academic merit, athletic merit, or other criteria specified by the awarding agency. There is often a written portion of the scholarship application asking you to explain why you should be chosen to receive the award.
The final type of financial aid is the federal work-study program. This needs-based program allows a student to work part-time on or off campus (for a government agency or non-profit organization) and earn money for school.
Not all colleges participate in the federal work-study program, so if this is something you’re interested in, be sure to find out if your chosen school is a participant.
You’ll still need to complete the FAFSA to qualify for work-study programs, and the amount of the award depends on financial need and type of work being done.
Below, we looked at students who were enrolled in college for the first time who were receiving some type of financial aid during the 2015-2016 academic year.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, nearly 83 percent of first-time students who were enrolled full time received some type of financial aid, whether loans, grants, or scholarships, or some combination of the three. The data did not differentiate between grants and scholarships.
The total awarded averaged to about $7,300 per student. But, only about 61% of graduating high school students completed the FAFSA in 2017, meaning they missed out on applying for many grants and scholarships that require it.
In summary, no matter your family background, ethnicity, gender, interests, talents, academic skills, economic level—there is financial aid out there for you. You may just have to be willing to put in a little legwork to find everything available to you—but it if saves you a few thousand dollars a year, it’s worth it!
But, how long you should plan on needing financial aid? Is it reasonable to think you could graduate in four years?
How Long Does It Take to Graduate?
For students enrolled in four-year institutions (both public and private), that answer varies. In some cases, it only took four years to obtain a four-year degree. In others, it took five or even six years. The data for all students who were enrolled in 2010 (and then graduated in 2014, 2015, or 2016) is included in the chart below.
Most students who enrolled in a four-year college (and planned on getting a four-year degree) took more than four years to graduate. In fact, only 41 percent of all students managed to graduate in the original four-year time span.
After six years, nearly 60 percent of students had obtained a four-year degree.
We also looked at how long, on average, it took men to complete four-year degrees versus women. This is broken down in the following chart.
As you can see, only about 36 percent of male students and 45 percent of female students graduated from a four-year institution in four years. By their sixth year, around 63 percent of females and nearly 57 percent of males had graduated with their four-year degree.
Then we examined graduation lengths by ethnicity (totals for ethnicity include both male and female students).
As shown in the graph above, Asian/Pacific Islander students had the highest percentage of graduation among all ethnic groups in our chart at four years, five years, and six years, with a high of 73 percent at six years.
This group was followed by white students, with a high of 64 percent at six years, then by those of two or more races, whose highest graduation rate was 60 percent at six years.
No individual group in our chart had more than 50 percent of students graduate a four-year institution within four years.
It may no longer be the norm to go to college for four years and come out with a degree if this trend continues.
Only about 40 percent of the U.S. population of 18-24 year-olds is enrolled in college at any one time.
More women are enrolled in college than men, and there are more white students enrolled than other ethnicities.
Non-traditional students are generally any student over the traditional college age, and/or students who work full time, have waited for more than a year between high school graduation and college enrollment, have children, earned a GED, are enrolled part-time or are financially independent of their parents even if they fit the other “traditional” student categories.
Understand the financial aid available to you so the costs of college don’t become a barrier to you or a loved one. Most students are now taking five or six years to graduate a four-year institution, so keep that in mind with financial aid, as well.
- National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: Enrollment.”
- National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics.”
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.10
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 306.10
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 304.10
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.30
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.20
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.70
- Parent Toolkit, “Public vs. Private Colleges.”
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.60
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.20
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.10
- National Center for Education Statistics, “Definitions and Data: Who is Nontraditional?”
- National Center for Education Statistics, “The Condition of Education: Characteristics of Post-Secondary Students.”
- Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Briefing Paper, “Single Mothers in College: Growing Enrollment, Financial Challenges, and the Benefits of Attainment.”
- GED Testing Service®, “GED® Graduates Make Significant Gains in College Enrollment and Persistence.”
- The Atlantic, “At Universities, More Students Are Working Full-Time.”
- U.S. News and World Report, “10 Reasons to Attend a Community College.”
- Scholarships.Com, “The Pros & Cons of Community College.”
- CollegeBoard, “Tuition Fees and Room and Board Over Time.”
- Forbes, “Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2019: A $1.5 Trillion Crisis.”
- SallieMae, “Other Borrowing Options.”
- Federal Student Aid, “Grants and Scholarships.”
- Federal Student Aid, “Work-Study.”
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 331.20
- The Hechinger Report, “Are Too Few College Students Asking for Federal Aid?”
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 326.10