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College Enrollments and Degrees Reach Record Levels

April 19, 2010

The Digest of Education Statistics provides a compilation of enrollment, finance, and other data that track American education from pre-kindergarten through graduate school.

The 2009 Digest, recently released by NCES, shows that total student enrollment in all higher education institutions in the U.S. rose 32 percent, from 14.5 million in fall 1998 to a record 19.1 million in fall 2008. 

Much of the gains in enrollment occurred at proprietary schools   Additionally, the number of women and full-time students also grew sharply. The number of students at private, for-profit institutions quadrupled over the past decade-rising from just 364,000 in 1998 to 1.5 million in 2008. Enrollment at all public two-year and four-year colleges and universities, in contrast, rose 25 percent, from 11.1 million to roughly 14 million. In the same time span, the number of women attending American higher education institutions increased 35 percent, compared with a 28 percent gain in the number of men. Female students now account for 57 percent of total postsecondary education enrollment.  And full-time enrollment grew 36 percent over the past ten years, while part-time enrollment increased 25 percent. Full-time students now constitute 61 percent of total enrollment. 

The growth in enrollment has lead to gains in the number of degrees awarded at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Between academic year 1998-1999 and 2008-2009, the number of bachelor's degrees conferred by U.S. colleges and universities grew from 1.2 million to 1.6 million. The number of master's, doctoral, and first professional degrees conferred also increased during the past ten years. 

The Digest also includes projections of education enrollments and degrees. These projections indicate that college enrollments and degrees will continue to climb over the next ten years (2008 to 2018).  In that time span, total student enrollments are expected to rise to 20.6 million, with the largest increase coming from students age 25 and older, which will rise from about 7 million in 2008 (about 38 percent of the total) to 8.3 million (40 percent of the total) in 2018. The rise in total enrollments will lead to a further increase in the number of degrees awarded. Estimates from the Digest show that the number of bachelor's degrees conferred will rise from the current 1.6 million in 2008-2009 to 1.8 million in 2018-2019. Master's-level awards will increase to 773,000 from the current 631,000, and new doctorates will increase to about 90,000 from 64,000.  

The higher education statistics within the Digest may be obtained by going to the NCES Web site.


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis