From the founding of the first U.S. colleges in the mid-1600s until after World War II, the demographics of college students remained relatively stable. Despite the establishment of colleges for women and African-Americans, the vast majority of students were white, male, and fairly wealthy. Legislation like the GI Bill, Affirmative Action, and the Higher Education Act would help to change that and would make possible the amazing demographic changes that have played out over the past few decades, opening up the college experience to a much wider spectrum of students.
As a result, today’s college students come from an incredibly diverse assortment of backgrounds, attend widely differing schools, and are taught by a much greater spectrum of teachers than ever before. Despite some setbacks in the wake of the recent economic crisis and slow progress in changing certain areas of higher ed, the students of today’s colleges are a very different bunch than they were in the early 1900s. Here we share some of these impressive demographic changes, as well as some troubling stats on serious changes that still need to be made to higher ed to ensure a level playing field for all.
- Generally, more Americans are going to college.
While college was once the bastion of the elite and wealthy, those barriers have long since been broken. Even during just the past 20 years, the number of Americans heading to college has increased significantly. In 1984, only 27% of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college. In 2008, that number rose to 39.6%. Overall, it’s estimated that around 27% of Americans have a college degree today.
- More women head to college than men.
These days, men are in the minority at many colleges in the U.S. Since 2000, women have represented about 57% of those enrolled in college. Why are so many more women heading to college? Experts say it’s due to a number of factors: women usually have higher grades, men are more likely to drop out, and older, low-income, and minority students are much more likely to be female. Whatever the reason, between 1970 and 2000, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to females increased 107%.
- More than 33% of full-time faculty are women.
Despite women making up more than half of the student body at most colleges, a much smaller proportion of college faculty are female. While this is a significant improvement from the 25% in the 1940s and 22% in the 1960s, it still reflects serious problems in faculty demographics, especially since just 17.5% of those female professors are full professors (compared to 40% of men who hold that title).
- Colleges are enrolling more African-Americans than ever before.
Between 1976 and 2009, the percentage of African-American students in college rose from 9% to 14%. That’s 66% heading to college right after high school, up from 43% in 1979. That’s still a low number but much closer to being on par with white students than in the past (70% of white students go to college immediately after high school).
- Other minority groups are heading to college in bigger numbers, too.
It’s estimated that by 2020, minority students will make up 46% of the nation’s total student population. Between 1971 and 1992, the number of Hispanic college students rose from 47% to 70%, and just last year there was a 24% increase in the number of Hispanics enrolled in college. And they’re not alone; currently about 18% of Native Americans attend college.
- Yet minorities are less likely to actually earn a college degree.
While college campuses have certainly become more diverse and inclusive, these students still make up a disproportionate amount of college dropouts. For example, while 18% of Native Americans will head to college, just 13% of those students will graduate. The same trend holds true for African Americans (just 43% graduate) and Hispanics (of whom only 51% graduate). Among white students, the graduation rate is 59%.
- Few professors are minorities, despite major gains over the past few decades.
The professors at America’s colleges aren’t really reflective of the new demographics in higher ed, either in gender as we’ve discussed, or in racial or ethnic background. Sadly, this is a demographic that’s been very slow to change over the past three decades. In 1980, African-Americans made up 4.3% of full time faculty. In 2003, that number rose just slightly to 5.5%. Overall, minorities make up only 13.8% of faculty nationwide.
- Women are earning nearly equal numbers of post-graduate and professional degrees.
In 1970, women earned 39.7% of master’s degrees, 5.7% of professional degrees, and 13.3% of doctoral degrees according to Census Bureau data. In 2009, women earned 60% of master’s degrees, 48.9% of professional degrees, and 52.2% of doctoral degrees.
- The number of international students has increased steadily.
American colleges have been steadily increasing in diversity, but not only through domestic students. The number of international students has also risen steadily over the past few decades. Between 2010 and 2011 alone, international enrollment grew by 5%, marking a 32% increase from a decade ago. The U.S. is an especially popular destination for students from China and India, who together account for about 45% of all foreign students.
- The demographics of online learners are surprising.
Online colleges are often marketed as places that help level the playing field when it comes to offering educational opportunities to all, especially minorities. Yet a recent survey found that the average online student is a 33-year-old white woman with a full-time job and household income averaging $65,000 a year.
- The average age of students is rising.
At one time it may have been rare to see older students heading back to class, but these days it’s increasingly common. According to data from the National Center for Education, between 1995 and 2006 enrollments for students over 25 rose by 13%. That means that over 40% of U.S. college students are now over 25, and 25% are over 30. When it comes to online schools, things skew even older: the average student is 36.
- Part-time students are much more common.
College used to be a full-time commitment for most students, but not anymore. Today, 75% of college students only go to school part time. While this flexible arrangement can be great, experts caution that it is partially responsible for a decline in completion rates, with few of these students earning a two or four year degree even after as much as eight years in school.
- In fact, 73% of undergraduates are non-traditional students in some way .
These days, the norm on college campuses would have been the exception a few decades ago. Almost three-fourths of students are non-traditional, meaning that they either delay enrollment, attend part time, work full time, support a family, are financially independent from their parents, do not have a high school diploma, or any combination of those traits. It’s estimated that there are as many highly non-traditional students as highly traditional students in college today.
- There are more low-income students than in previous generations, but that’s changing.
There are certainly more low-income students attending college today than there were a few decades ago, but that’s a demographic shift that’s seeing a slow but steady reversal. In 1992, 54% of low-income students attended colleges. In 2004, that percentage fell drastically to just 40%. Despite financial aid opportunities, low-income students seem to more reluctant to enroll in college, a trend that many fear will continue well into this decade.
- Disabled students are increasingly going to college.
College is a much more inclusive place today than it was 50 years ago and nothing is perhaps more emblematic of that than the growing number of disabled students who attending school. Increasingly, schools are designing programs that cater to the needs of this diverse group of students, helping those with social, intellectual, and physical disabilities. As of 2010, there were more than 250 programs designed to help support disabled students on college campuses, a growth of 625% from just eight years prior.
- More students take online courses than ever before.
The average college student in America today may not even have to leave home to take classes. That’s because of the huge boom in online education over the past few decades. A study by Babson Research Group found that in 2011 more than 6.1 million students took at least one online course, a 10.1% increase from the previous year.
- More college students attend community colleges.
A big part of the growth in the number of students in college has been a drastic increase in enrollments in community college, which has helped open up college education to a wider range of students. While enrollment in community college saw a small drop in 2011, there are still 21.8% more community college students attending school today than in 2007.
- For-profit colleges have become a popular choice.
A few decades ago, for-profit colleges were barely a blip on the higher education radar, but these days they’re a popular choice for students. More students than ever before are enrolled in for-profit institutions, accounting for just over 1.2 million of the more than 10 million college students in the U.S. That’s a 539% growth over the last decade.
- More young adults are heading to college.
The poor job outlook and an uncertain economy are having a definite impact on college demographics. In 2009, it was reported the 41% of all 18-to-24-year-olds were attending a degree-granting institution. In 1979, that number was just over 20%. What’s more, many young adults report the economy as playing a key role in deciding which school they would attend, with many opting for community college as a way to save money.
- Most students get financial aid.
In times past, college was something that most people paid for themselves by working or with a little help from parents. Things have changed, in large part due to skyrocketing tuition that has far outpaced inflation. In 2009, the Education Department found that more than 66% of students were receiving financial aid, up from 63% in 2003. Even elite schools like Harvard have been impacted. In 1986, just 40% of students attending the school received grant money. By 2011, that number had risen to 61%.