AAC&U News: January/February 2016
Facts & Figures

Enrollments Falling, Inequity Growing?

College enrollments grew steadily throughout the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, but the last four years have seen slight but steady declines in enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).  More troubling than the decline in enrollments, however, is that the decline is driven in large part by lower enrollments at community colleges, and that fewer low-income students and students of color in particular are enrolling and persisting.

Despite the recent downturn in enrollment, US Census data shows college attainment rates have increased slightly overall. But attainment rates have grown significantly faster for white students than for students of color, despite the fact that the share of white young people in the overall population is shrinking. This data, along with latest institutional and demographic data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), this provides a snapshot of current trends in enrollment as well as staffing trends in US higher education today.

Demographic Characteristics of Students

  • White students continue to comprise the majority of undergraduate students enrolled in public institutions, but just barely at 51.6 percent; at private nonprofit institutions, 58 percent of students are white.[1]
  • Black students comprise 13 percent of students at public institutions and 12 percent of students at private institutions. Hispanic students comprise 16 percent of students across all sectors, representing slight increases from previous years.
  • Although degree attainment rates of black and Hispanic students are growing, they are outpaced by those of white Americans—despite the fact that an increasing share of young Americans are nonwhite and nonwhite students are enrolling in college at higher rates.

Enrollment Status by Institutional Type

  • According to the NCES, almost 18 million undergraduate students were enrolled in the United States in fall 2014; 60 percent of these students attended four-year institutions and 39 percent attended two-year institutions, with less than two percent attending short-term programs lasting less than two years.
  • Enrollment is slightly down from previous years—and NSRC data estimates further declines through 2015. However, these declines are accounted for mostly by for-profit colleges and public community colleges; enrollment at four-year public and private nonprofit institutions is slightly up over the last three years.
  • At four-year public institutions, more than three-quarters of students attend full time, while at two-year institutions, only 40 percent of students attend full time. At private nonprofit institutions, more than 80 percent of students attend full time.

Instructional Staff

  • Instructional staff make up the single largest category of employees in higher education (38 percent across all sectors), but they are also more likely to be working part time than other employees.[2]
  • Four-year public institutions have the greatest percentage of instructional staff working full time (63 percent), while four-year nonprofit institutions have only 40 percent full-time instructors, and two-year public institutions have only 31 percent full time instructors.
  • Four-year for-profit colleges use the largest proportion of part-time instructors—84 percent. These institutions also spend the smallest share of their total expenses on instruction—25 percent.


Did You Know?

  • College enrollment overall has dropped over the last four years, driven almost entirely by community colleges and for-profit institutions.
  • Although nonwhite students represent an increasing share of the total college student population, white students continue to graduate at higher rates.
  • Instructors are the largest category of employees in higher education, but more than any other employees they are increasingly employed on a part-time basis.




[1] All demographic data referenced here are derived NCES reports.

[2]Instructional staff does not include graduate assistants who teach; nor does it distinguish between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. According to Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey of the University of Southern California and the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, non-tenure-track  faculty now account for three-quarters of all instructional staff at nonprofit colleges and universities.

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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