College enrollment in the United States has exploded over the last half century, up from about 4 million students in the late 1950s to more than 20 million students today. 65% of US high school graduates now enroll in college.
College enrollment growth has been driven partly by a large increase in the number of high school graduates in the US and partly by large public subsidies for higher education.
That college is increasingly common in American society is generally good news. Going to college is – or at least, should be – a recipe for all kinds of good outcomes for students and society.
But there is a glaring oddity in the college expansion story of the last 50 years.
Namely, for the last several decades, college enrollment growth has been monopolized by a nearly finite set of about 3,200 incumbent colleges.
These 3,200 colleges are a mix of public and private colleges and of 2-year and 4-year colleges. They are approved in state law, have been around for a long time, and have status as accredited institutions -- a status that grants them unique access to large public subsidies and puts them in almost sole control of enrollment.
For more than 30 years, this set of colleges -- this largely unchanging group of 3,200 accredited colleges -- has enrolled over 90% of college students, even as the absolute number of college students has grown six-fold.
Note: In this blog, unless otherwise specified, college refers to 2-year and 4-year colleges and to public institutions, private non-profit institutions, and private for-profit institutions.
Other Posts in this Series
- College 101: The Syllabus (Part 1 of 5)
- College 101: Soaring Student Enrollment in a Fixed Set of Accredited Colleges (Part 2 of 5)
- College 101: Government Subsidies and Related College Price Inflation (Part 3 of 5)
- College 101: Worrisome and Sparse Data on College Outcomes (Part 4 of 5)
- College 101: A Call for New Colleges (Part 5 of 5)
A. Growth and Demographics of US College Enrollment
Over the last 50 years, the number of students enrolled in US colleges has grown by approximately 500%, from less than 4 million students in 1960 to 20 million students today. During the same period the US population grew 75%.
The growth of college enrollment in the US over the last 50 years has been driven partly by a doubling of the number of high school graduates in the United States and by a significant increase in the percentage of high school graduates who attend college. (College enrollment growth has also been encouraged strongly by increases in public aid for college, a topic I will cover in Part 3 of this blog series.)
While overall college-going rates have improved, large and objectionable gaps in college-going rates persist by race and income level.
Note: The college enrollment gap, by race and by income, is much larger if measured among 9th graders rather than high school graduates since low income and minority students have lower high-school completion rates than their wealthier or white peers.
B. Growth of US College Enrollment by College Type
Currently, approximately two-thirds of college students attend 4-year colleges and one-third of college students attend 2-year colleges. Since 1970, enrollment in 2-year colleges has tripled and enrollment in 4-year colleges has doubled.
In 2013, 72% of US college students attended public colleges (32% went to 2-year public colleges and 40% went to 4-year public colleges).
The remaining 28% of college students attended private colleges -- 20% went to non-profit private colleges (nearly all of which were 4-year colleges), and 8% went to a for-profit private college (75% of which were 4-year colleges).
Note: Enrollment in for-profit private colleges peaked at 2 million students (10% of all US college students) in 2010. Since then, for-profit colleges and the number of students who attend them have been declining. The shrinking of for-profit colleges in the US is due in part to increased US Department of Education regulation.
C. Enrollment Concentrated in a Fixed Set of Colleges
While student enrollment in colleges has grown dramatically over the past several decades, the total number of colleges has not.
In fact, with the exception of the creation of about 1,300 for-profit colleges – colleges which are now declining in number from increased regulation and which account for just 8% of all college enrollment – the total number of colleges has remained essentially fixed for the last 25 years.
Specifically, in 1990, the US had 3,219 public colleges and private non-profit colleges (1,563 public colleges and 1,656 private non-profit colleges).
Twenty-three years later, in 2013, the US had an almost identical number (3,275) of public colleges and non-profit private colleges.
During this 23-year period, this fixed set of approximately 3,200 public colleges and non-profit private colleges maintained a 92%-98% market share in any given year of the burgeoning college market.
Specifically, in 1990, these 3,200 colleges educated 13.6 million students and controlled 98% of the college market. In 2013, these almost identical 3,200 colleges educated 18.7 million students and controlled 92% of the college market.
Since rapid enrollment growth over the last 30 years has flowed mainly to this fixed set of approximately 3,200 colleges, their average size has mushroomed in the same period.
From 1990 to 2013, the average size of a public college grew from 6,938 students to 9,085 students, and the average size of a private non-profit college grew from 1,667 students to 2,406 students.
Note: Private for-profit colleges enrolled 8% of college students in 2013, peaked at about 10% of US college enrollment in 2010, and are contracting. I do not discuss or evaluate for-profit colleges in detail in this blog, except to point out that they have never been a large phenomenon when contrasted with the 3,200 public colleges and non-profit colleges that have controlled 90%+ of college enrollment for decades.
In short, the college establishment – a group of approximately 3,200 public colleges and private non-profit colleges -- has controlled over 90% of college enrollment for decades, even as enrollment has sky-rocketed. This set of colleges has, over the past several decades, been protected almost entirely from new entrants and carried on in full control of enrollment since accreditation, state law and other forms of law and regulation make new college formation almost impossible.
Next, in part three of this blog series, I will take up the vast public subsidies that run from state and federal governments to the college establishment and the inflationary cycle that results, a cycle in which our state and federal governments increase aid for colleges and colleges in turn raise price. Caught in this inflationary cycle are students and families who increasingly deplete household income and take out large loans to meet the ever-rising price of college.
A Note on Sources: All data in the charts and tables above come from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics.
Figure 1 – Total Number of College Students
Table 2 – US High School Graduation Totals and College Attendance Rates
Table 3 -- % of High School Graduates Enrolling in College by Race
Table 4 -- % of High School Graduates Enrolling in College by Income Level
Figure 5 – College Enrollment in 2-Year and 4-Year Colleges
Figure 6 – College Enrollment in Public and Private Colleges
Figure 7 – Student Enrollment by College Type
Table 8 – Number of Colleges Over Time
Table 9 – Average College Size Over Time