Hispanic and Black Students See Record Growth
Education experts have primarily looked to the struggling job market to explain the surge in college enrollment since 2007. A recent study of the 2008-2009 school year by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found a 4.8% increase overall in the fall of 2008, which was more than double the increase from 2006-2007. Pointing to historical enrollment growth during past economic downturns, many analysts have seen this simply as a function of the recession: When unemployment is high many people go back to school, either to get vocational training or simply to fill time productively.
But a recent study of shifts in college enrollment between fall 2007 and fall 2008 by the Pew Research Center points to a second underlying cause: Sharp increases in the number of racial and ethnic minority students, who have historically been underrepresented in American higher education.
Overall, freshmen enrollment in American colleges and universities climbed by 144,000 students between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2008, which the study identifies as the first year of the recession. That 6% increase was the largest in 40 years and almost three-quarters of it came from minority students. Hispanics led the growth with an incredible 15% jump in postsecondary enrollment. Black students increased by 8%, Asian students by 6% and white student enrollment increased by a relatively small three percent.
The study's authors don't suggest that minorities were hit harder by the recession, or are exceptionally susceptible to the 'back to school' effect. Instead, they point to a combination of national demographic change and improvements in K-12 education. In the U.S., each successive generation tends to be more diverse than the last. As a result, each wave of college freshmen will have a larger potential pool of minority students. Furthermore, minority students - specially Hispanics - represented a major portion of the recent growth in high school graduates.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the total number of 'recent high school completers' climbed by 200,000 between October 2007 and October 2008, and over 75% of that growth came from racial and ethnic minorities. Hispanic students saw the largest increase (29%), with Hispanic high school completion rates reaching a record 70% in October 2008.
The fact that Hispanic college participation rates are climbing even faster than high school completion rates is great news for our nation's push to increase educational attainment rates. Hispanics make up a rapidly growing segment of the population, and some experts predict that they'll represent over 20% of the American college-going population by 2020. However, there's still work to be done to improve Hispanic college-completion rates - a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute found that this population has the lowest six-year graduation rate of any other demographic.
Two-Year Institutions Lead the Pack
The growth in college enrollment hasn't been distributed evenly across all schools. The Pew Center found that freshman enrollment increased the most (11%) at 2-year colleges between 2007 and 2008. In the same time frame, less than 2-year institutions (also known as trade schools) saw a 5% increase and 4-year colleges and universities saw a 4% jump.
There was also significantly more growth at large colleges and universities. Those with a total population of at least 20,000 students saw a 12% increase in freshman enrollment. Schools in smaller size categories generally experienced freshmen growth below the 6% national average. The report notes that this may be due to the fact that large schools tend to be public and have lower tuition. Cost has become an increasingly important factor for college choice - another recent survey found that 55% of 2009 freshmen reported having 'some concern' about finances. However, the Pew report does point out that large private institutions, which tend to come with equally large price tags, also saw big enrollment jumps.
For-profit, or proprietary, colleges, which include trade schools as well as 2- and 4-year institutions, also saw an 11% increase in freshmen enrollment. The dominance of both racial and ethnic minorities and 2-year and for-profit institutions may be more than a coincidence - minority students are more likely to be clustered at 2-year colleges and trade schools than 4-year universities. Between 2007 and 2008, the demographic makeup of less-than-4-year colleges dropped from 55% to 53% white. However, the Pew report points out that the minority enrollment spike was equally robust at all postsecondary institutions: The freshman class at 4-year schools dropped from 64% to 62% white in the same period.
Another interesting feature of the distribution of the enrollment growth is the disparity at the individual institutional level. About 50% of the total increase in freshmen occurred at just 109 out of almost 6,100 postsecondary institutions in the U.S. California's 2-year colleges dominate the list.
The Pew Report also looked at employment rates among 18-24 year old undergraduates. They found that, as with recent graduates, employment rates have declined among current students. In March 2009, 9% of 18-24 year old undergrads were unemployed, up from 5% in March 2007.
However, enrolled college students are still doing better than their peers - the unemployment rate for non-enrolled 18-24 year olds was 11% in March 2007 and 19% in March 2009.