by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content
The U.S. education system provides various options for students who want to continue their education past high school. Students can choose from public and private colleges and universities, which may greatly differ in student body size, programs offered, and research capacity. Students can also opt to attend community colleges, which offer technical and remedial education.
No matter the institution, many adults in the U.S. place great importance on getting a college education (Marken, 2019). The benefits of having a college degree, which may include higher salaries and better employment opportunities, also make the pursuit worth it for many students.
In this article, we will take an in-depth look at the crucial college facts that represent and shape the trends surrounding college education in the United States. Some of the areas that will be discussed are enrollment rates by institution type and college degrees awarded by those institutions. How many college students are there in the US? This article will also answer that question, as well as touch on the number of colleges in the US and the financial aspect of U.S. college education.
By collating these statistics and laying them down in one place, this article aims to help students who may be in the process of deciding whether to pursue a college education and which type of institution to attend. It will also help other stakeholders understand the state of college/undergraduate education in the United States.
College Statistics 2023 Table of Contents
- General U.S. College Statistics
- College Application Statistics
- College Enrollment Statistics
- The Financial Aspect of College
- The Outcome of College Education
- How These Statistics Help Shape College Education Trends in the U.S.
General U.S. College Statistics
Undergraduate education in the U.S. may be obtained from either a university, a four-year college, or a two-year community college. Students who are in the process of exploring their options may find checking how many universities are there in the US, for instance, helpful. Meanwhile, other researchers looking to verify the extent of higher education in the United States may also get started by learning about these numbers:
- According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as of the academic year 2016-2017, the total number of universities in the US is 4,360. That also includes colleges.
- How many colleges are there in the US? Of the 4,360 higher education institutions in the U.S., 2,832 are four-year colleges and 1,582 are two-year colleges.
- According to the latest data from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), there is a total of 1,050 community colleges in the U.S.
- Out of these 1,050 institutions in the U.S., 942 are public colleges,73 are independent institutions, and35 are tribal community colleges.
Top colleges in the United States
Below are the 2020 rankings of educational institutions providing undergraduate programs in the United States. The rankings of these top universities, colleges, and community institutions were based on various indicators.
- According to the QS World University Rankings: USA 2020, Harvard University ranks number 1, beating about 300 other American universities.
- Harvard University got an overall score of 93.3 in the QS Ranking. Meanwhile, it got a perfect score in terms of research and employability. As for learning experience, it got a score of 96.8. It scored lowest (76) in diversity and internationalization.
- Stanford University took the number 2 spot in the same ranking, with an overall score of 89.7. It ties with Harvard in the aspect of learning experience (96.8), but only got a score of 93.8 in the research indicator. Stanford University scored 85.4 and 84 for employability and diversity, respectively.
- Third on the ranking is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which has an overall score of 87.1. It has the same score of 96.8 in terms of learning experience. Meanwhile, it scored 90.5 when it comes to research, 84 in diversity, and 78.7 in employability.
- Among the other universities that ranked high on the list are the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) with 79.2 points, Columbia University with 79 points, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with 78.3, and Yale University with 78.3 points.
Source: QS World University Rankings
The United States also dominates global university rankings. Here are some findings from the QS World University Rankings 2020:
- The top 3 universities in the world are in the United States. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) takes the top spot, followed by Stanford University at the second spot and Harvard University at the third.
- The MIT got an overall score of 100, while Stanford and Harvard got 98.4 and 97.4, respectively. The universities were ranked based on several indicators, including citations per faculty and number of international students.
- Two other U.S. universities were included in the top 10 global university rankings: the California Institute of Technolgy (Caltech) at 5th place and the University of Chicago at 10th place.
- Overall, 29% of the top 100 universities in the world are in the United States.
College Application Statistics
High school graduates who intend to get a college education in the U.S. need to take a few steps before getting admitted to an institution. After assessing their goals and preferences, students must research their options thoroughly as they pick a school. The next steps would be registering and taking admission tests. Finally, students will need to complete their application, which involves submitting requirements such as secondary school transcripts, personal application essays, and financial statements (Privette, 2016).
This section lays down the latest college application data and information in the United States.
Number of college applications
Undergraduate enrollment in the United States has seen a decline in the past several years, but applications are increasing at some schools (Stebbins, 2019). Below are some interesting figures relating to college applications in the U.S.
- Based on data collected by the Pew Research Center, there were around 10.2 million college applications in the U.S.
- According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, only 9% of college freshmen in 1990 applied to at least seven schools. However, by 2016, this has increased to 35%.
- As of 2018, most students (24%) apply to one college and only 4% apply to 10 or more institutions.
- Some of the biggest and most popular schools often receive tens of thousands of applications. In 2019, the top five schools that received the most applications are the UCLA (102,225 applicants), University of California, San Diego (88,446 applicants), University of California, Irvine (85,092 applicants), University of California, Berkeley (85,044 applicants), and University of California, Santa Barbara (81,824 applicants).
- Moreover, according to data from the NCES, many schools realized a significant increase in applications in the past several years. The Southern New Hampshire University, for instance, had the biggest increase within a five-year period (2013-2018) at 300.9%. Meanwhile, UCLA saw a 66.1% increase for the same period.
- Furthermore, a study by the Pew Research Center showed that the majority of U.S. colleges admit most of the students who apply. Out of 1,364 four-year institutions surveyed, only 17 admitted fewer than 10% of their applicants in 2017. Unsurprisingly, these 17 include prestigious institutions like Yale University (6.9%), Harvard University (5.2%), and Stanford University (4.7%).
- Meanwhile, the institutions with the highest applicant acceptance percentage include George Mason University (81.3%), the University of Missouri at Columbia (78.1%), and Virginia Tech (70.1%).
Factors influencing students’ choice of college
College selection is not a simple weighing and deliberation of expenses and returns. Rather, it is significantly affected bycultural and social determinants (Brand & Xie, 2010). As such, there are several factors that students consider to be important when choosing a college institution to apply to and attend.
- According to a report by NCES, the majority of students (74%) think an institution’s academic reputation and quality is a very important factor, while 23% think it is somewhat important and 2% do not see its importance.
- 74% of students also see the availability of their desired program in an institution as another very important deciding factor, while 24% think it is somewhat important and 3% do not see its importance.
- Meanwhile, 73% of students think the job placement rate from an institution is very important, while 25% believe it is a somewhat important factor and 2% do not think so.
- The cost of attendance is considered a very important factor by 67% of students, while 29% see it as somewhat important and 3% do not mind the cost.
- A school’s location is also a factor. 12% of students see the idea of being far from home as a very important deciding factor and 41% think it is somewhat important.
- To students, the least important factor that matters in their decision is family legacy. Only 9% see it as very important, while 29% consider it somewhat important and 62% see it as not at all important.
Information sources used by students to learn about colleges
Students trying to learn more about college institutions use different channels to gather information that can help them make wise choices.
- According to data from New America, company websites were the most widely used source of information by students wanting to learn more about a particular college. 47% of students listed it as their top source of information.
- Online search engines are the second most used source of information, with 37% of students leveraging them.
- 19% of students find visiting a college campus another way to learn about an institution.
- High school guidance counselors also serve as a good source of information about college as reported by 14% of students.
- Meanwhile, both college brochures and friends share the favor of 12% of students.
- Other sources of information about college utilized by students are college fairs, college ranking lists, parents, teachers, and social media websites.
- A study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that most American colleges turn to social media to promote their schools and recruit students, with 88% of admission officials considering social media as important to their recruitment programs (Barnes 2009, cited in Sessa, 2014).
- Among these sources of information, visiting a college campus was considered very helpful by 68% of students, while 25% say it was helpful.
- College websites, on the other hand, were rated very helpful by 57% of students and helpful by 32%.
- College fairs were also seen as very helpful by 48% of students. They were also rated helpful by 35% of students.
- Meanwhile, high school guidance counselors were considered very helpful by 43% of students and helpful by 35%.
College Enrollment Statistics
Based on data from the NCES, college enrollment in the United States has been declining since its peak in 2010 until 2019 (Duffin, 2019). This section will provide a closer look at the figures that more accurately represent the status of college enrollment in the U.S.
- Between 2018 and 2019, the recorded number of students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities was 21.9 million students.
- Before that, between 2017 and 2018, a total of 19.65 million students enrolled in college in the U.S. Out of these, 14.53 million enrolled in public colleges, while 5.12 million enrolled in private colleges.
- In the Fall 2019 semester, however, the number dropped to 18.2 million students. This was 1.5 million short of the predictions made by NCES, which projected the 2019 enrollment to be about 19.73 million.
- From the 18.2 million students, 7.9 million enrolled in public 4-year colleges and3.8 million enrolled in private non-profit 4-year institutions.Meanwhile, 750,000 enrolled in private, for-profit 4-year schools and5.3 million students attended public two-year colleges.
- Overall, the Fall 2019 semester enrollment showed a decrease of 1.3% from the Fall 2018 semester enrollment.
- The distance learning sector also has a share in college enrollment. As of the latest available data from 2017, around 5.5 million undergraduate students (19.5% of overall enrollment) took at least one online course.
- Meanwhile, 2.2 million students were exclusively enrolled in distance learning or online courses.
- It was also found that in 2018, 47% of students chose online degree programs with the easiest majors because of other commitments that made it a challenge to attend on-campus classes.
- 21% of online degree students in 2018 reported that this mode of learning was their only means to obtain their degree of choice.
The Financial Aspect of College
Money matters in education as per-pupil spending and schooling resources, which cost money, are both positively associated with student outcomes (Baker, 2019). Because of this, it is only necessary for students and stakeholders to look at the financial aspect of college education, especially as average college tuition costs in the U.S. have been increasing slowly but steadily over the past years (Powell & Kerr, 2019).
- During the academic year 2019-2020, the average college tuition and fees for private colleges were $36,801, with high-ranking institutions charging around $50,000.
- Meanwhile, public schools charge an average of $22,577 for out-of-state students and $10,116 for in-state students.
- Most students (13.7%) in private non-profit four-year colleges pay annual tuition, ranging from $30,000 to $34,999. Around 12.2% spend $50,000 to $54,999, while 12.3% of the students pay between $55,000 and $59,999 yearly. Only 0.6% pay more than $60,000.
- On the other hand, 21.8% of four-year public college students pay annual tuition and fees amounting to $7,000 to $8,999. Around 11% of students spend under $7,000.
- Tuition and fees averages at private colleges have been steadily climbing by 3% every year.
- Public school tuition and fee averages, on the other hand, exhibit an annual increase of around 4%.
Source: U.S. News
Source: U.S. News
Higher education studies typically underscore the influence of social class in determining what college willhighly qualified high school graduates attend. Affluent students are more likely to attend highly selective colleges than their underprivileged counterpartswith the same academic qualifications (Hoxby & Avery, 2012, cited in Lor, 2018).In fact, the gap between higher education value in a highly selective institution and in a nonselective institution is wider than before (Marginson, 2016).
- Studying in the most expensive colleges in the United States can cost upwards of $70,000 annually. Tuition, fees, and boarding at Harvey Mudd College, for instance, cost as much as $75,003 as of the academic year 2018-2019.
- UCLA students spent around $71,620, while Brown University students were set back by $70,326 during the same period. Surprisingly, not all Ivy League universities were included in the most expensive colleges in the U.S.
U.S. college funding and revenue
Below are some interesting figures relating to undergraduate education funding and revenues in the United States.
- In 2018, the Department of Education provided about $51 million worth of funds to post-secondary education programs.
- The next biggest source of federal funding is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provided around $12 million.
- The Department of Defense shared about $2.5 million.
- The Department of Health and Human Services spared around $1.6 million.
When it comes to college institution revenues, sources and distribution differ between private and public schools.
- Based on a report by NCES, tuition and fees were the top sources (91%) of revenue for private, for-profit institutions during the academic year 2016-2017. Other smaller sources are investments (4%), government appropriations, contracts, and grants (2%), and auxiliary enterprises (2%).
- Private non-profit colleges also obtained most of their revenues from tuition and fees (30%). However, they had bigger revenues from other sources compared to for-profit institutions: 20% from investments, 11% from government sources, and 7% from auxiliary enterprises.
- As could be expected, public institutions got most of their revenues from government appropriations, contracts, and grants (41%). Tuition and fees follow at 20%.
College financial aid
College tuition and fees can be overwhelming for many families in the U.S., but college financial aid can make undergraduate education more affordable (Powell & Kerr, 2019). Trends also indicate that more students now rely on financial aid, one of the effects of rising college tuition.
- According to data from NCES, a total of 86% of first-time, full-time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate students were awarded financial aid in the academic year 2017-2018.
- During the said period, 84% of first-time FTE public college students received financial aid.
- Meanwhile, 90% of first-time FTE private, non-profit college students received aid.
- 83% of first-time FTE private, for-profit college students were awarded financial aid.
The Outcome of College Education
Continuing education beyond high school is no longer considered a luxury for a select few, but a necessity for many who want to improve their economic status. Jobs that require a high school diploma at the minimum are decreasing, while opportunities that require a degree are expanding (Itzkowitz, 2019).
- According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35.4% of male U.S. citizens have completed four years of college or more. This shows a 0.8% increase from 34.6% in 2018.
- Meanwhile, 36.6% of the female U.S. population completed four years of college or more. This shows a 1.3% increase from 35.3% in 2018.
- Up until 2013, there were more male college degree completers than females. Starting in 2014, females have started to take the lead.
- In the academic year 2017-2018, Ivy League universities awarded a total of 15,615 bachelor’s degrees.
- Community colleges across the United States, on the other hand, awarded a total of 1,451,409 degrees. These consist of 852,504 associate degrees, 579,822 certificates, and 19,083 bachelor’s degrees.
College and employment
Evidence showing that a college education and degree can significantly improve an individual’s employability and earning potential is overwhelming. College graduates are half as likely to be unemployed compared to high school graduates. Undergraduate degree holders can also potentially earn an additional $1 million throughout their lifetime (APLU, n.d.).
- According to data from the College Board and U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2018, 83% of bachelor’s degree holders were employed compared to 68.8% of high school diploma holders.
- Meanwhile, 39.3% of those who do not have even a high school diploma were not in the labor force and 3.4% were unemployed.
- On the other hand, 28.3% of high school graduates were not in the labor force while 2.9% were unemployed.
- Only 1.8% of bachelor’s degree holders were unemployed and 15.3% were not in the labor force.
- In 2019, the median annual earnings of U.S. college graduates was $45,000. The highest median was recorded in 2002 ($48,326).
How These Statistics Help Shape College Education Trends in the U.S.
The desire of high school graduates to pursue a college education and the positive outcomes that come with having a college degree are just a few indicators that undergraduate education remains valuable. However, challenges such as rising college education costs and the COVID-19 pandemic are bound to leave an impact.
While students can seek financial aid to help them weather the rising cost of higher education, this could mean they will graduate with debt. A college degree can improve an individual’s earning potential, which can eventually help them pay off student debt faster. However, as the economic decline due to the pandemic, employment and earning trends may also be factors.
Furthermore, colleges are highly likely to adjust the way they operate and facilitate education. It is not surprising to see online college enrollment soar in the upcoming semesters.
A Look Ahead: Challenges and Opportunities for the U.S. College and Higher Education Sector
The current challenges surrounding college education in the U.S. also pave the way for innovation. COVID-19, for instance, has encouraged educators and administrators of higher education institutions to reimagine the way holistic and engaging learning experiences are delivered to students while meeting other goals.
Online learning has also opened opportunities for individuals to earn a degree even in the comforts of their homes. Programs that seem to be difficult to offer online were made available, including but not limited to, certificate programs for dental assistants and even master’s degrees for construction management.
There is no doubt that all stakeholders need to make adjustments to make college education continuity possible despite the current issues. However, with the right combination of cooperation and open-mindedness among all parties, the college education sector can thrive.
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