Almost 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in college, a record number, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The trend is being driven by several factors, including low rates of employment in this age group. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a smaller share of 16- to 24-year-olds was employed in September 2009 – 46.1 percent – than at any time since the government began collecting such data in 1948.
But the spike in college enrollment is also due to some positive trends. The increasing share of 18- to 24-year-olds comes at a time when a record proportion of young adults has completed high school, either by regular high school graduation or passing an equivalency test. According to Census Bureau figures, in October 2008, almost 85 percent of 18- to 24- year-olds had completed high school, an all-time high for this basic measure of educational attainment, up from 75.5 percent in 1967. “We have the biggest pool of young adults we’ve ever had who’ve finished high school,” said Dr. Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center and author of the analysis. “This means that more youths than ever before were eligible to attend college.” And while enrollments have been rising for decades at both two- and four-year schools, this latest increase has taken place almost entirely at two-year colleges.
Community Colleges Fuel the Surge
Community colleges across the country experienced major enrollment increases last year. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) stated that the recession had a “dramatic and unforeseen impact on enrollments,” which grew an overall 16.9 percent from 2007 to 2009 and a whopping 24.1 percent in full-time students during that same two-year period. Although 2009 figures are not finalized, AACC staff members have been analyzing headcounts and making estimates based on numbers submitted by hundreds of two-year colleges.
Christopher Mullin, AACC director for policy analysis, and Kent Phillippe, AACC director of research, said that as the recession caused traditional- age college students to re-examine their options, community colleges became more desirable.
“The limited fiscal resources of previously financially secure families positioned community colleges as a viable option due to comparably lower tuition and fees,” they wrote in a December 2009 policy brief titled Community College Enrollment Surge: An Analysis of Estimated Fall 2009 Headcount Enrollments at Community Colleges.
Latest figures from the College Board confirm that community colleges are less expensive than four-year institutions. They average $6,750 per year (including tuition, fees and room and board) in the net price for full-time students, compared with $9,800 for four-year public colleges and $21,240 for four-year private colleges.
In some ways, the enrollment surge mirrors trends of the past. Historically, community college enrollments have long been considered somewhat countercyclical; that is, they tend to rise as the economy worsens. By all accounts, this recession has driven unemployment rates to their highest levels in 25 years, leading many students to show up for last-minute registration at their local community college. Other students found they could not be accommodated at public four-year colleges because these institutions had experienced severe budget cuts and capped enrollments.
But Phillippe and Mullin also see the increases as the result of aggressive two-year college marketing and advertising campaigns that have been successful in highlighting institutional quality and general awareness of campus offerings. Honors programs, dual-enrollment partnerships with high schools, and unprecedented attention from politicians, who have praised the colleges for their role in work force training, have put community colleges in the spotlight. As a result, the sector has experienced steady growth. In October 2007, approximately 3.1 million young adults, or 10.9 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds, were enrolled in a community college. A year later, that figure had risen to 3.4 million students, or 11.8 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, enrollments at four-year colleges were essentially flat from 2007 to 2008.
The AACC report notes that the Rocky Mountain states – Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming – experienced the largest percentage increase in enrollment of community college students. For example, press reports show that enrollment at Colorado’s Front Range Community College was up approximately 26 percent last year.
Hispanics See Gains
The Pew analysis reports that, by 2008, more Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds completed high school than ever before.
“About 70 percent of young Hispanics have finished high school either by graduating with a diploma or getting a GED,” said Fry. “This indicates that Hispanics, like other groups, are expanding their base of those who are eligible to attend college.”
In other positive news, the Hispanic high school dropout rate among 18- to 24-year-olds continued its downward march. In 2008, 22 percent of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds were high school dropouts, the lowest rate on record. Previous studies released by the Pew Hispanic Center have looked beyond the overall numbers and found that Hispanics born in the U.S. have lower dropout rates than Hispanic immigrants of their age group. The dropout rate for second-generation Hispanic youths in the U.S. is 8.5 percent, a figure roughly equivalent to young adults of all races.
The sheer numbers of Hispanics enrolled in college has continued to climb, but the percentage has remained relatively stable. About 26 percent of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college in 2008. This level did not surpass the 2007 young Hispanic college-enrollment rate and trailed the White young college-enrollment rate by nearly 15 percentage points, a figure that continues to trouble many who are working to close that gap. Further studies have provided analysis based on the subcategories of U.S.-born Hispanic youth versus those who are immigrants.
“When it comes to enrolling in college, some Latinos are not so far behind their White counterparts,” said Fry. “About 46 percent of White 16- to 24-year-old high school grads are enrolled in college. In comparison, 29 percent of Hispanic foreign-born 16- to 24-year-old high school grads are in college, but 43 percent of Hispanic native-born 16- to 24-year-old high school grads are in college. So the native-born are behind in enrollment, but not way behind.”
However, the gap in college completion is one in which both foreign-born and native-born Hispanics lag behind their White counterparts. Fry reports that about 37 percent of White 25- to 29-year-olds have at least a bachelor’s degree while the comparable figures for foreign-born Hispanics and native-born are 9 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
“Where young Hispanics really trail is not in pursuing college, but finishing college, as in getting the bachelor’s degree,” he said.
Among other racial and ethnic groups, trends show that 2008 college enrollment among 18- to 24-year-old African-Americans remained relatively unchanged at 32 percent, but the high school dropout rate was slightly higher than in 2007.
According to the Pew report, White youths attained several educational milestones in 2008 with nearly 41 percent of White 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college. In addition, there were fewer White high school dropouts than ever before. The White high school dropout rate reached an all-time low of less than 9 percent in 2008.
College Enrollment by Gender
It has been widely documented that women represent the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds attending college. As of October 2008, women comprised 53 percent of all young college students. However, as Pew research shows, men have logged some gains, and although the gender trend has not reversed, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-old men enrolled in college reached an all-time high in October 2008 (37.0 percent).
Fry explains in the report that for many years young men’s college participation had remained below the 35.2 percent level reached in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, when many male students extended their education because they wanted to hang on to their student deferment from the military draft. Not until October 2005 did college enrollment among young men surpass the October 1969 level. It has kept rising since then.
By contrast, although more 18- to 24-year-old women were enrolled in college than their male counterparts, the percentage of young females enrolling in college has remained at slightly more than 42 percent for the last three years.
The High School Completion Factor
Although many would like to see an increase in the rate of college attendance among those who have finished high school, Fry says statistically, this is not the case.
“Effectively, a record high proportion of youths are in college because the base of young high school completers is at an all-time high, not because college enrollment among high schooleducated youth has increased,” he writes.
In fact, the measured college-enrollment rate of 18- to 24-year-old high school completers was 46.7 percent in 2008, slightly below the peak attained for this measure in 2005 (46.9 percent).
With President Obama and organizations such as the Lumina Foundation mounting programs to produce more college graduates, this is not necessarily welcome news. However, experts say that they are hoping to see a rise in degreecompletion rates for those who do enter college. And the numbers of students applying to and entering two- and four-year colleges are projected to continue to tick upward.
The Pew report stops short of making any predictions about enrollment trends. It does end with the suggestion that, although college enrollment figures for 2009 are still being finalized, all indications are that enrollment levels for 18- to 24-year-olds continued into 2009, with the possibility that another record high will be reported.