Percentage of High School Graduates Who Go to College

If you’ve ever wondered how many public high school students who graduate high school (or obtain their GEDs) go on to attend college, we’ve got the answers for you! And if students aren’t going to college after completing high school, what are they doing instead?

Top Stats

  • In 2016, there were only five states in which at least 90 percent of high school seniors graduated.
  • Around two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college within one year of graduation.
  • In 2014, 84 percent of high income high school students enrolled in college within a year of graduation.
  • Around 23 percent of college students drop out of college by their fourth year.
    39 percent of college dropouts felt they weren’t getting their money’s worth at college.

Before we take a look at who is (or isn’t) going to college, we need to first see how many students are graduating high school annually.

High School Graduation Rates

About 3.3 million students were projected to graduate in the 2018-2019 school year.

Only five states had graduation rates of 90 percent or above for the 2016-2017 school year (the most recent statistics available): Iowa and New Jersey (tied at 91 percent), and Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, each at 90 percent.

Check out how your state stacks up in the graphic below.

Most states fell in the 80 to 89 percent range–meaning that of all high school seniors who could graduate, only 80 to 89 percent of them did, depending on the state.

New Mexico, however, had the lowest graduation rate of any state, with only 71 percent of high school seniors graduating.

Traditional College Students

Who is a traditional college student? Any student who enrolls in college within one year of graduating high school, who attends 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.

(So, for example, if 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.

The percentage of students enrolled in two-year schools (also known as community colleges) was quite a bit lower than the percentage of students enrolled in four-year colleges for every year in our chart.

Gender

We also break out college enrollment by gender, as explored in the graph below.

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.

Economic Status

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 compare 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 the 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 2015, that percentage rose to nearly 70 percent—an almost 20 percent jump in just five 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 75 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 and 2016 were the only years 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 recently graduated college 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 their 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 GEDs.

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.

We also examine ethnicity as a percent of the general population of traditionally-aged college students for the same time period.

Ethnicity

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 were 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 attenders, the ethnic breakdown is as noted above.

College Graduation Rates

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 40 percent of public college students who enrolled in 2008 graduated from a four-year institution in four years. By the six-year mark, 60 percent of students seeking a four-year degree had graduated.

At non-profit private colleges, nearly 53 percent of students enrolled in 2008 who were seeking a four-year degree graduated within four years. At six years, nearly 66 percent of students seeking a four-year degree had graduated.

A 2018 study revealed that 23 percent of college students had dropped out after four years, and nearly 27 percent had dropped out of college after six years. We examine some of the possible factors below.

College Drop-Outs

The National Student Clearinghouse is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1993, and performs research and provides education reports to the public and to schools throughout the United States.

According to a recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse, around 23 percent of college students drop out by their fourth year in college. We break out the data in more detail below.

*Note: Numbers in the above chart are rounded and may not equal 100% for each segment.

As you can see, while a good portion of students had graduated at four years, 30 percent of students attending public four-year colleges were still enrolled but hadn’t yet earned their degrees.

And, interestingly, the number of students who had transferred to another school but remained enrolled was pretty close across the board, with 10-14 percent of students switching schools but continuing their studies.

The number of transferring and graduating students was also nearly equal among all types of college, with 4 to 5 percent of those transferring graduating college in four years.

However, after four years, around 17 percent of students at public four-year colleges had dropped out of college. The drop-out percentage nearly tripled for private for-profit four-year schools, with around 49 percent of students dropping out by their fourth year.

Nonprofit four-year colleges only had a 12 percent dropout rate at four years, while public two-year colleges had a 40 percent dropout rate at four years.

So why aren’t students staying in college? The reasons are as varied as the students themselves. Sometimes financial issues crop up that weren’t there before—such as a parent losing their job and no longer being able to help their college student with expenses.

Other students leave because of pregnancy, family care issues (needing to care for a loved one, whether a child, parent, or other relatives), or because they never really wanted to attend college in the first place, but their parents made them attend.

In other situations, students feel alone on campus (whether it’s a small or large school) and haven’t made enough meaningful connections with other students to make it worth sticking around.

Students who are the first ones to attend college in their families are also more likely to drop out than other groups, though it’s unclear why that’s the case.

And in many schools, there weren’t the necessary academic supports in place to help struggling students, who ended up dropping out because they were falling too far behind academically.

The infographic below lays out a few additional drop-out statistics.

There are many more reasons, but that would be an entire article in and of itself!

In general, much like the college non-attenders below, it appeared that most college drop-outs were taking care of their families and/or working.

But what about high school graduates who never chose to attend college in the first place?

College Non-Attenders

We took a look at why some students chose not to go to college, and we discovered that a variety of factors came into play, from family obligations to financial constraints, to just not having an interest.

The chart below lists the most common reasons high school students gave in 2014 for not attending college.

*“Other” includes: Pregnancy/childcare/marriage, taking a break, going into the military, and undecided about going to college.

While the “other” category includes pregnancy, childcare issues, and marriage—things historically attributed to women as reasons for not attending college—interestingly, those who choose not to enroll in college are more likely to be male.

It appears that most students who aren’t attending college are taking care of their families and/or working instead of going on to get a college degree.

In addition, they tend to live in rural areas, come mostly from the southern half of the United States, and usually have parents who didn’t complete college.

Ethnically, however, it’s the same mix as those who attend college: a higher percentage of white students choose not to attend college, followed by Hispanic students, then black students.

Why are we missing the rural students when it comes to college enrollment? There are a few factors it seems, which we examine in more depth below.

The Rural Dilemma

One of the biggest factors in low enrollment appears to be the lack of interest from college recruiters: there’s not much incentive to make the trek out to rural school districts to recruit students from small districts. Especially when one trip to a large district could mean reaching thousands of students just in one day.

In many rural areas, the nearest college is at least two hours away, making it difficult for students who are needed on the farm or in their family’s businesses to travel to visit prospective schools.

In addition, families in rural areas generally tend to have lower incomes than those who live in cities and suburbs, and some colleges are unwilling to add more students who may need financial aid to their campuses.

For some students, large campuses can feel overwhelming after living in small communities, making them less inclined to enroll. For rural parents, the worry is that once their students leave for college, they won’t want to come back, so they may be less likely to encourage their children to go away to college.

For those students (rural or not) who do choose not to attend college, what are their career prospects like? Are they doomed to flip burgers at the local fast food chain for the rest of their lives?

Does Skipping College Affect Your Career Options?

We take a look at how students who didn’t go to college fare in the job market in the chart below.

As you can see from the chart above, those who did not attend college but do have professional certifications (such as an HVAC certification) and/or took vocational classes in high school and performed fairly well fare just as well in the job market as those who attended college, and actually do slightly better in a few areas.

For example, they’re 9 percent more likely to be employed full time, and 15 percent more likely to have health insurance. While they’re slightly less likely to have a retirement fund, they’re just as likely to enjoy and feel satisfied with their jobs as college attendees.

Those high school students who did not attend college and did not obtain professional certifications, do well in high school, or attend vocational classes didn’t fare as well, with less than half working full time and having health insurance.

Only 8 percent of the individuals in this group had a retirement fund, but they were about as likely to enjoy their jobs as the other two groups.

What were the factors within students’ control that tended to indicate a high school student who didn’t attend college would do well in the workforce?

It appeared that taking higher level math and science courses in high school was a good indicator that a student would do well after graduation.

Other factors (for those not taking higher level science/math classes) included vocational classes in a specific field (preparation for a specific career), and obtaining a professional certification or license after high school.

Factors that didn’t seem to affect student successes one way or another included the amount of time students spent on homework each week and participation in extracurricular activities.

Working (or not working) during high school also didn’t seem to impact a non-college attending student’s success.

Interestingly, for those non-college attenders with professional certifications or licenses, they tend to make more, on average, than their college-attending peers, as examined in the chart below.

These are just averages, of course. In some industries, such as the HVAC field, which does not require a college degree, technicians start around $20 per hour, and move up rapidly from there. (Professional licensure is required, however.)

Construction is another trade that, while not requiring a college degree, also pays quite well. And many professional hairdressers and make-up artists also earn well over the averages here, without needing a college degree.

The chart below lists a few of the many available jobs that don’t require a college degree and the average median 2018 salary for each.

Again, these are just a few of the many, many possible options out there. Keep in mind that many of the available options require a professional license or certifications, which can be obtained from trade schools or other programs.

While college is a valid path for many students, it may be time to remove the stigma that still exists for those who choose to take a different path to their careers.

So what about those who did attend and complete college? What kinds of degrees were they earning?

College Completers

We looked briefly above at why people choose not to go to or complete college, but what about those who do decide to go to college and earn their degrees?

We take a look at what types of degrees they’re getting, and who exactly is graduating below.

Associate’s Degrees

Of those awarded Associate’s degrees, 616,162 (61 percent) were women.

Between the 2005-2006 academic year and the 2015-2016 academic year, the number of associate’s degrees awarded rose by 40 percent, from 713,066 in 2006 to 1,000,000 in 2016, as shown in the graph below.

Roughly 56 percent of students receiving associate’s degrees in the 2015-2016 academic year were white, followed by nearly 20 percent who identified as Hispanic. We explore ethnicity in more detail below.

As you can see above, black students made up the third largest percentage of associate’s degree recipients, followed by those who identified as Asian/Pacific Islander.

Many people view associate’s degrees as just a stepping-stone to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher—but did you know that the following careers only require an associate’s degree? We include average median salary information (for 2018) below.

As you can see, just from the few jobs listed, there are a variety of interesting options and a wide salary range for each type of position.

There are many other associate’s-degree-only jobs out there—so check out your options if you’re debating whether or not to get a four-year degree.

Bachelor’s (Four-year Degrees)

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree (typically, although in some cases it may take five or six years depending on class load and when a student decided on their major) and is a level below a master’s degree.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, 1,920,718 students received bachelor’s degrees. That was 49 percent of all degrees conferred that year.

Of those, 57 percent were women.

Between the 2005-2006 academic year and the 2015-2016 academic year, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded rose by 29 percent, from 1,485,242 in 2006 to 1,920,718 in 2016, as shown in the graph below.

Just over 62 percent of students receiving bachelor’s degrees during the 2015-2016 academic year were white, followed by 12 percent who identified as Hispanic. We explore this in more detail below.

As you can see, black students were the third-largest percentage of bachelor’s degree recipients, followed by those who identified as Asian/Pacific Islander.

The chart below displays the total number of Bachelor’s degrees awarded by ethnicity for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees can take 18 months to four years or more to complete, depending on the class load, focus area, and school. These are advanced degrees that are one level below a doctorate. In order to obtain a master’s degree, you must have a bachelor’s degree, or be working toward both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the same time.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, 785,595 master’s degrees were awarded, which was 20 percent of all degrees that year.

Of those receiving master’s degrees, 59 percent were women.

For the ten-year period between the 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 academic years, master’s degrees increased by nearly 31 percent, going from 599,731 awarded in 2006 to 785,595 awarded in 2016, as shown in the graph below.

A little over 55 percent of master’s degree recipients were white, followed by 11 percent of recipients who were black.

Non-resident aliens made up a significant percentage of master’s degree recipients, with a higher percentage of non-resident aliens earning master’s degrees than black students or Hispanic students.

But what exactly is a non-resident alien? Not an extra-terrestrial, but rather, a student who is from a foreign country and is attending school in the United States.

Individuals in the United States on a student visa typically aren’t considered resident (permanent) aliens unless they have lived in the U.S. for five calendar years.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s look at some more data!

The chart below indicates the total number of Master’s degrees awarded by ethnicity for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Doctorates

A doctorate is the highest level of degree that can be obtained. Length of time to obtain a doctorate can vary, again depending on the subject studied, the school granting the degree, and course load.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, 177,867 doctorates were awarded, or 5 percent of all degrees that year.

Of those receiving doctorate degrees, nearly 53 percent were women.

Between the 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 academic years, doctorate degrees rose by nearly 29 percent, going from 138,056 awarded in 2006 to 177,867 awarded in 2016, as shown in the graph below.

Around 60 percent of those receiving doctorates were white, followed by 11 percent who were Asian/Pacific Islander.

Non-resident aliens again made up a significant percentage of those obtaining doctorates, with a larger percentage earning doctorates than either black or Hispanic students.

The chart below displays the total number of Doctorates awarded by ethnicity for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Those high school graduates and GED earners who do decide to obtain college degrees choose many different types of degrees; and students from all ethnic backgrounds obtained every type of degree available.

In Summary…

Most high school students (roughly two-thirds) choose to attend college within one year of graduation or earning a GED. A total of around one-quarter of all college enrollees drop out at the four year mark, for a wide variety of reasons.

For those students who decided not to attend college at all, or who only attended some college before dropping out, there are still good jobs available, and they can also have enjoyable careers.

However, it helps if they’ve had some prior vocational training and/or obtain a professional certificate or license.

Reasons for not attending college or dropping out were as varied as the individuals themselves, but included financial concerns, lack of connections on campus, and a desire (or need) to work and make money instead of spending money on classes.

Those students who do go on to graduate college do so at a variety of institutions and earn everything from associates’ degrees to doctorates.

Sources

  1. National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: High School Graduation Rates.
  2. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.70   
  3. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.10 
  4. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.20  
  5. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.60   
  6. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 302.30  
  7. National Center for Education Statistics, “Graduation Rates for Selected Cohorts 2008-2013; Outcome Measures for Cohort Year 2008; Student Financial Aid Academic Year 2015-2016; and Admissions in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2016.”   
  8. National Student Clearinghouse, “About the Clearinghouse.”  
  9. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Persistence & Retention – 2019.”  
  10. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Yearly Success & Progress Rates – 2019.”  
  11. KQED News, “One Reason Rural Students Don’t Go to College: Colleges Don’t Go to Them.”  
  12. The Hechinger Report, “More High School Grads Than Ever Are Going to College, but 1 in 5 Will Quit.”   
  13. HuffPost, “This is Why 12 Percent of High School Graduates Don’t Go to College.”  
  14. National School Boards Association, Center for Public Education, “The Path Least Taken.”  
  15. U.S. News & World Report, “25 Best Jobs That Don’t Require a College Degree.”  
  16. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 318.10
  17. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 321.20
  18. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 322.20
  19. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 323.20
  20. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 324.20
  21.  National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts:  Degrees Conferred by Sex and Race.”
  22. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 318.40
  23. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.10

University of Northern Colorado, “Resident Alien vs. Non-Resident Alien.