Percentage of High School Graduates That Go to College

General Statistics:

  • The percentage of high school graduates (referred to sometimes as completers) who enroll in either 2-year or 4-year institutions following graduation is referred to as the immediate college enrollment rate
  • As of Fall 2019, the age of students attending a post-secondary institution for the first time were as follows:
    • 2.3 million students between age 18-24
    • 200,800 students over the age of 24
  • In 2017, 2.9 million students graduated from high school, and 1.9 million (67%) enrolled in college that fall, including students aged 16-24 who graduated from high school within 4 years of beginning 9th grade or completed a GED/equivalent credential
  • In 2018, overall enrollments in postsecondary institutions were showing declining numbers compared to enrollments the prior spring:
    • 607,977 first-time students between age 18 and 24 were enrolled in college in Spring 2018, compared to 642,653 in Spring 2017 and 653,312 in Spring 2016
  • In 2018, 42.8% of all persons between age 16 and 24 were not enrolled in school
  • In 2018, college enrollment rates for recent high school graduates between age 16 and 24 were 66.9% for men and 71.3% for women
  • Between 2000 to 2017, the immediate college enrollment rate was higher for 4-year institutions than for 2-year institutions
    • 44% of graduates enrolled in 4-year institutions
    • 23% of graduates enrolled in 2-year institutions
    • The above percentages have not significantly changed since 2000
  • More than 60% of students taking the GED exam indicated they intended to attend college
  • 98% of colleges that require a high school diploma accept the GED credential
  • Increasingly, Americans are skeptical about whether or not a college education prepares young adults for the workforce:

High School Graduation Rates

  • In 2019, the national graduation rate was 84.6%
  • Some states do better than others, and while the national graduation rates have increased in recent years, the number of schools with lower graduation rates are increasing.
  • In 2018, 93% of adults between the age of 18 and 24 and 89.8% of adults over the age of 25 had completed a diploma, GED or another equivalency credential
    • In 1980, only 84% of adults between the age of 18 and 24 had graduated
  • About 3.6 million public school students projected to graduate in the 2019-2020 school year with high school diplomas (does not include equivalency credential)
    • 3.3 million will graduate from public schools
    • 347,000 will graduate from private schools


Over time, the number of students who enroll in college after graduation has increased.

By Gender

Among male and female students, the overall immediate college enrollment rate in 2017 was higher among females. Additionally, more male students enroll in 2-year universities than females.

  • 61% of male students enrolled in college after graduation
    • 24% enrolled in 2-year institutions
    • 37% enrolled in 4-year instituions
  • 72% of female students enrolled in college after graduation
    • 21% enrolled in 2-year institutions
    • 50% enrolled in 4-year institutions

By Socioeconomic Status

  • In 2019, 69% of students from higher-income high schools were 25% more likely to enroll in college vs 55% of students from lower-income high schools
  • In 2019, 89% of students from higher-income schools returned as sophomores in college vs. 79% from lower-income schools
  • 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 vs. 32% who pursue a 4-year program
  • 78% of students from the highest quintile of socioeconomic status seek a 4-year degree and 13% a two-year degree
  • 37% of students from high-income status families first enroll at highly selective institutions vs. 7% of lower-income students

By Race

  • In 2017, the immediate college enrollment rate by race from 2000 to 2017was:
    • 69% of white students in 2017 vs. 65% in 2000
    • 67% of Hispanic students in 2017 vs 49% in 2000
    • 87% of Asian students in 2017 vs. 74% in 2000
    • 58% of black students in 2017 with no measurable change since 2000

Where High School Graduates Are Enrolling in College

In spring 2018, first-time students between age 18 and 24 enrolled in college as follows:

  • 184,264 enrolled in 4-year public institutions
    • 193,312 enrolled in spring 2017 marking a -4.7% decrease
  • 69,148 enrolled in 4-year private non-profit institutions
    • 75,201 enrolled in spring 2017, marking a -16.9% decrease
  • 11,356 enrolled enrolled in 4-year for-profit institutions
    • 14,466 enrolled in spring 2017, marking a -21.5% decrease
  • 325,242 enrolled in 2-year public institutions
    • 341,323 enrolled in spring 2017 marking a -4.7% decrease

During the Fall 2019 Semester, approximately 18.2 million students enrolled in colleges and universities:

  • 7.9 million enrolled in public 4-year institutions
  • 3.8 million enrolled in private non-profit 4-year institutions
  • 750,000 enrolled in private, for-profit 4-year institutions
  • 5.3 million enrolled in public 2-year institutions

Why High School Graduates Don’t Enroll in College

  • Nearly 25% of high school students considered middle class indicated they were not planning to attend college because of the expense
  • Misperceptions about financial aid available, predatory lending practices by banks, or shoddy advising by high school or college advisors leads to students missing out on opportunities:
    • In 2017, 36% of high school graduates did not apply for financial aid
    • Nearly $2.3 billion of financial aid went unclaimed in 2017
    • 49% of high school graduates in 2017 would have qualified for a Pell Grant
  • Unsurprisingly, proximity to colleges and universities can be a huge deterrent to high school graduates in rural areas:
    • Students in rural areas face different socioeconomic factors than those in urban areas
    • 59% of rural high school graduates go to college after high school
    • In 2017, 20% of residents in rural areas had attained a bachelor’s degree vs. 34% in urban areas

Alternative Courses of Study

It is important to remember that not every high school graduate goes on to pursue a 2-year associate’s degree or a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Immediate post-secondary enrollment reports often focus solely on college enrollments and do not always include students whose studies are certificate-based, trade-based or vocational. As a result, these populations of students may be overlooked. Additionally, some specialized areas of employment require a student to undergo an apprenticeship, to take additional coursework, or to have certain certifications.

Unfortunately, there is not as much data collected on these student populations and their outcomes as there is on students in 2 and 4-year institutions.

These areas of study are still considered post-secondary. Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to trade and vocational pursuits in the US. In comparison, Europe enrolls nearly half of high school students in vocational training before graduation. Additionally, there are vocation-specific, or “magnet” high schools in greater numbers overseas than in the United States. After graduation, over half of European students go on to participate in vocational programs.

  • In 2014, trade-school enrollment in the US had increased to 16 million students enrolled
  • In contrast, there were only 9.6 million enrolled in trade schools in 1999
  • 32% of employed workers in the US require mechanical skills
  • In 2018, the highest levels of enrollment in trade schools were as follows:
    • 48% were HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, & Air Conditioning)
    • 15% were Electrical Trades
    • 15% were Welding
    • 13% were Auto Body Collision
  • 14% of trade school students were between 18 and 21 years of age in 2018
  • 45% of trade school students were between 22-37 years of age in 2018
  • 94% of trade school students were male
  • 56% of trade school students had completed high school
  • 14% of trade school students had completed their GED

In Summary:

Most high school students (roughly two-thirds) choose to attend college within one year of graduation or earning a GED.

For those students who chose to pursue an alternative course of study or careers in vocational or trade fields, job prospects can be just as promising as those with college degrees, particularly with professional licensing, certification or other credentials.

In conclusion, the reasons for not attending college are often preventable. These included financial concerns, lack of connections on campus, and a desire (or need) to work and make money instead of spending money on tuition.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: High School Graduation Rates.
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.10
  4. Key findings about America’s workforce and changing job market
  5. From GED To College Degree:
  6. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.20
  7. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Persistence & Retention – 2019.”
  8. A big reason rural students never go to college: Colleges don’t recruit them
  9. The Hechinger Report, “More High School Grads Than Ever Are Going to College, but 1 in 5 Will Quit.”
  10. Rural Education
  11. A big reason rural students never go to college: Colleges don’t recruit them
  12. Fast Facts: Immediate transition to college (51)
  13. Fast Facts: Back to school statistics (372)
  14. High School Benchmarks – 2019 – National Student Clearinghouse Research Center
  15. Recent high school completers and their enrollment in college, by sex and level of institution: 1960 through 2017
  16. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Yearly Success & Progress Rates – 2019.”