Has the "Typical" College Student Really Changed?

Over the last few years many articles have argued that we view the “typical” college student wrong. The Washington Post contends that “typical” college students are no longer “teenagers who spent senior year of high school searching for the four-year institution that best matched their personalities.” Forbes agrees that “the experience for most college students is nothing at all like [the typical].” These points are further argued by NPR, Vox, and Slate.

In the Huffington Post’s view, “If you’re like most Americans, you probably picture a young, more-than-likely white, high school graduate somewhere between 18 and 21 years old, attending a four-year institution full time.” Using data from the Digest of Education Statistics we will explore the basis of these assumptions and look at the predicted future of current trends.

Are students likely to be white?

                      Digest of Education Statistics 2013, Table 306.10

Yes, but the prevalence of white students has been on the decline since at least the 1980s. Though white students make up 60% of the higher education population in 2012, this is a substantial decrease from 1980 where they represented 83% of the student population. This decline comes as black and Hispanic students rise from 9% and 4% respectively in 1980 to each representing 15% of the student body population in 2012. Furthermore, these trends are likely to continue; minority students are predicted to reach 45% of the nation’s high school graduates by 2020, with some states reaching 50-80% minority graduates.

Are students likely to be 24 and under?

                    Digest of Education Statistics 2013, Table 224

Yes. Though there was a substantial decline from 1970 to 1990 in the 24 and younger age group (72% to 56%), they have accounted for around 57% of enrollment since 1990. The 35-year-old and older group has grown the most; rising 10 percentage points between 1970 and 1990. This trend is also unlikely to change. The National Center for Education Statistics predicts enrollment for 25 to 35 year olds will increase by 20% and enrollment for 35-year-old and over will increase by 25% between 2010 and 2021.

Are students likely to be attending four-year schools?

                        Digest of Education Statistics 2013, Table 303.25

Yes. Since 1970, the percentage of students enrolling in four-year universities has never dropped below 60%. The largest percentage of total enrollment in four-year schools since 1974 was 65% in 2012. For undergraduates, 59% of students are predicted to attend four-year institutions until 2023. Is this the best for all students? Maybe not; some two-year programs can have the same rate of return as four-year programs (though choice of major likely affects your future earnings).

Are students likely to attend full-time?

                         Digest of Education Statistics 2013, Table 303.10

Yes. Full-time enrollment reached its lowest point in 1992 at 56% and peaked at 62% in 2010. The resurgence of full-time attendance may help students in the long run: students enrolled exclusively part-time are more than three times as likely to dropout as exclusively full-time students and twice as likely as mixed enrollment students. Mixed enrollment may have greater benefits for non-first-time students. They are less likely to drop out compared to either exclusive full- or part-time enrollment. Though the percent of students enrolled full-time as undergraduate and post-baccalaureate is predicted to decrease over the next century, full-time enrollment will remain the common way of attending college.

Are students likely to attend public schools?

                         Digest of Education Statistics 2013, Table 303.25

Yes, but enrollment in public universities has been on the decline since 2001. This decrease has been matched with an almost equal increase in private for-profit enrollment. This may be an issue for students as for-profits have low retention rates, offer less instruction per Federal Aid dollar, and show higher default rates on Federal Student Loans. These issues will need to be addressed as private universities (both nonprofit and for-profit) are expected to keep pace with public universities 14% enrollment growth through 2022.

How has enrollment changed when we look at degree length, enrollment status, and school type together?

                        Digest of Education Statistics 2013, Table 303.30 
                       *Enrollment status is not listed in for-profit colleges in the data set.

Students seem to be leaving part-time enrollment in public two-year universities in favor of private for-profit four-year universities. This change from community colleges into for-profit schools may be due to cost caps and funding cuts shuttering the most expensive, but highly demanded, skill programs in community colleges. It may also reflect the ease of online and night classes at for-profit colleges. Part-time students are more likely to be working in general (72% versus 41%), especially in the 35 or more hour group (32% versus 7%), compared to full-time students in 2012. Even though the trends have leveled off since 2010,  students and policy makers should attempt to further understand the possible merits and problems of for-profits as total enrollment grows into the next century.

 A quick review.

 Are students likely to be white? Yes.

Are students likely to be under 24? Yes.

Are students likely to attend four-year schools? Yes.

Are students likely to attend full-time? Yes.

Are students likely to attend public schools? Yes.

 Is the “American View” correct?

No. While the “American view” paints a nice picture of the traditional student, a majority of students fail to conform to one or many of these assumptions. As far back as 1992 and as recently as 2012 traditional students have only made up 30% of college enrollment.

What does this mean for higher education policy? As many of the articles above argue, higher education policy can no longer (and should not have since the 90s) target the “typical” college student. Though President Obama unveiled a proposed plan to help community college goers in his State of the Union address, we must still strive to attain a balance between policies that help the young, straight out of high school student and those supporting nontraditional students.

This is especially important in the student debt debate. It is unlikely $33,000 (the average student-loan debt for the class of 2014) in debt means the same to a 22-year-old as it does to a 35-year-old or a 50-year-old. As debt has shown to have some effect on starting your own business, buying a house, or moving out of your parent’s basement, it is likely the same debt will have a larger effect on nontraditional students who often have a harder time paying off their student debts.  As the average cost of college attendance soars and students are taking out more loans, it’s important to understand the “typical” student is no longer that typical.

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josh russell

Josh Russell

Josh Russell is a research assistant in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, providing support with research and grants related to entrepreneurship and education.