Federal Report Shows Some Increases in College Enrollment, But Are They Enough?

College Students

Enrollment Climbs Steadily at American Colleges and Universities

Each year, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) releases a report on the 'Condition of Education'. The reports explore ongoing trends in both K-12 and higher education in the United States, including participation in education, student outcomes and educational progress and contexts of elementary, secondary and postsecondary education.

The organization's latest findings on postsecondary participation are primarily positive. The report shows that while the recent surge in college enrollment may be partially driven by the economic downturn, it is actually part of an ongoing upward trend in the number of Americans who are participating in higher education. Between 2000 and 2008, there was a 24% increase in undergraduate enrollment to 16.4 million students. The organization predicts that these numbers will continue to grow, reaching 19 million students by 2019. Postbaccalaureate enrollment is also growing - the number of students in graduate or professional schools has grown every year since 1983, reaching 2.7 million students in 2008.

Although any growth in postsecondary participation is a good thing, some education experts worry that this isn't enough. Speaking to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, noted that 'We are simply not on a trajectory to significantly ratchet up either access or educational attainment... We cannot tweak our way to international competitiveness.'

College Graduates

College Completion Rates Lag

Although enrollment growth isn't as fast as some experts deem necessary, the educational attainment problem is also due to slowing college completion rates. In 'The Condition of Education 2010,' the NCES reports that about 31% of 25- to 29-year-olds had completed at least a bachelor's degree in 2009. This represents an overall increase in educational attainment among young adults since 1971. However, the rate of 25- to 29-year-olds with at least a bachelor's degree held steady between 2000 and 2009, in spite of the increase in the number of enrolled college students.

A recent study by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) also shows that, in spite of the growth in enrollment, the relative number of individuals with degrees is shrinking. The NBER notes that educational attainment is dropping because it's taking students longer and longer to complete their degree programs. This steadily growing time to degree has potentially major economic consequences for both individuals and the entire country - as educational attainment slows, so does international competitiveness in research, business and innovation.

The NBER report points to reduced financial resources for both students and institutions as the major cause of reduced college completion rates. Students with less income typically have to work while studying part time, and schools with strained budgets offer fewer courses, less financial aid and fewer student services. But there's another, even more troubling problem driving the college completion down: the educational attainment gap between white and Hispanic students.

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently released an analysis of Hispanic college completion rates that argues that increasing Hispanic completion rates is crucial for meeting Obama's educational attainment goals. The report points out that Hispanic students are expected to make up over 20% of the American college population by 2020, yet they have the lowest college completion rates of any racial or ethnic group. And this problem has been getting worse over time. In the 'Condition of Education 2010,' the NCES reports that, between 1971 and 2009, the gap in bachelor's degree attainment between white and Hispanic students grew 14 to 25 percentage points. Smaller gaps also persist between white and black students and whites and Asians/Pacific Islanders.

Data from the NCES, the NBER, the AEI and many other research organizations point to two major issues that American higher education will have to confront in order to improve college completion rates: Finances and racial attainment gaps. Schools need to gain access to greater funding in order to keep tuition down, offer more financial aid (particularly in the form of institutional grants rather than just loans) and provide better student services. It's also crucial for government organizations and postsecondary institutions to target low-income students and students in under-served ethnic and racial groups for more financial assistance, better K-12 college preparation and stronger support networks in colleges and universities. If we can begin to shrink the attainment gap between the white and financially well-off and just about everyone else in the country, we will have a shot at once again having the highest rate of college graduates in the world.

Female Student

The Gender Gap: Female Enrollment is Up, But Salaries are Not

Ethnicity isn't the only area in which the NCES found disparities. The organization also reports on a gender gap: More women are enrolled in higher education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and have higher rates of educational attainment. In 2008, female students accounted for 57% of undergraduate enrollment and 59% of graduate and professional enrollment, and the percentage of women who had earned at least a bachelor's degree in 2009 was eight points higher than that of men. And this gap is expected to grow - the NCES projects that by 2019, women will account for 59% of undergraduate enrollment and 61% of graduate enrollment.

Although these numbers indicate that women are making major strides in the field of education, they continue to lag behind men in other crucial areas. The NCES report shows that, at every degree level, young adult males earned a higher median salary than their female peers with the same level of education. Some education experts point to this disparity to explain why women are pursuing more postsecondary education: They know that to reach certain salary levels, they have to have more education than men in the same position.

Racial attainment gaps may also be contributing to the gender gap. In underrepresented minorities, girls are far more likely to graduate from high school and enter college, particularly among black, Hispanic and Native American populations.

Female students of all races continue to be underrepresented in many traditionally 'male' fields. In the 2007-2008 school year, women earned just 17% of all bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering and engineering technologies. And while women earned 27% of bachelor's degrees in computer and information sciences and support services ten years ago, they were down to just 18% in 2007-2008.

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