Higher Education in the United States

Perhaps the nerd life's becoming a bit more mainstream. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, the percentage of people going to college has been on the rise. To be more specific, the years between 2000 and 2012 saw an overall increase in 18-24 year-olds going to two-year and four-year institutions. But, who exactly is going to college, and what factors could be deciding who gets to tackle textbooks?

College Attendees

In fall 2012, 20.6 million students enrolled in American colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This indicates a roughly 34 percent increase in total enrollment since fall 2000.

The chart below looks at the percentage of all 18-24 year-olds who attended an American institution. In 2000, 35.5 percent of all 18-24 year-olds went to college. That percentage climbs to 41.1 percent by 2012.

However, this chart represents everybody, regardless of gender. How does it change if we break it down? The graph displays data for women (red) and men (blue).

Broken down by gender, the data shows a clear split in educational endeavors. Females throughout the years have attended college at a higher percentage than males. On averge, females attended with a percentage of 41.9; men only 35.7.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, this split relfects a reversal that's been long in the making. In 1960, there were 1.6 males for every female graduating, and 1.55 males for every female undergraduate. In 2003, the statistics flipped: 1.35 females for every male graduating, and 1.3 females for every male undergraduate.

Many factors have led to this occurrence. Starting in the 1970s, women postponed marraige after college. In the '50s and '60s, women tended to marry within a year after graduation. That time frame expanded to 2.5 years in the '70s, allowing more time for further education.

The '70s also brought about the legal use of contraceptive pills by married and single individuals. In the Supreme Court case "Baird v. Eisenstadt," the justices ruled that anyone, regardless of marital status, can use the pill. This went against a prior notion that only married people could use birth control. With this decision, more women could better plan their futures.

Looking at the percentage of people in college per race paints quite a picture: the Asian population, for example, has a high, consistent attendance rate. At the same time, the Hispanic population experienced quite an upswing throughout the years.

The sheer population numbers, however, portray a different display. Throughout the years, the minority population has lived up to its namesake, never totalling a percentage equal to or higher than the majority white population. At the same time however, recent years have shown a trend leaning away from this status. The bar graph below illustrates this aspect.

Cost of Attendance

Breaking News: College is expensive. Breaking Breaking News: That may not change any time soon. According to a report by Money Magazine, the average published tuition for students at public and private rose in 2015. Overall, the cost of public schools for in-state students rose to $9,410, up 2.9 percent from 2014. For private schools, the average tuition hit $47,831, a 3.4 percent increase. Community college prices climbed 3 percent to about $3,400.

The map below displays the average cost of tuition at public schools across the U.S.

The cost of college over time has changed as well, and not necessarily for the better. Since the 1970s, the cost of college has grown at a rate faster than inflation, steadily making a dollar's value less and less when used to pay for college. Even without looking as far back as 1970, the increase in college costs is apparent. The data below ranges from 2004 to 2015.

At the same time, the amount of financial aid given by college institutions, state and federal government has been on the rise since the 1990s. A dramatic spike -- a 66 percent increase -- in aid from all these sources occurred between 2008 and 2009. This increase seems to show that financial aid is trying to keep up with the rise of college costs.

However, according to the Money Magazine report, tuition has increased faster than the inflation rate, and financial aid has not kept up with the pace due to state taxpayers contributing less to public colleges. The College Board calculates that about $5.55 out of every $1,000 goes toward state subsidies of higher education today. That’s down $1 from a decade ago, and $4 from 1990.

The graph below shows the amounts of aid given by federal, state, college and loans since 1990. The amounts are represented in thousands (example: 20,000 = 20,000,000).

With the cost of college varying per state, does it affect how many people enroll? Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said in a report by Money Magazine that he doesn't think so. Total college enrollment has dropped since a peak in 2010, but that can be attributed to falling enrollments at for-profit and community colleges. Enrollment at four-year and nonprofit institutions has remained stable, according to Hartle.

If enrollment seems stable, what about graduation rates? The scatterplot below depicts the percentage of people with bachelor's degrees per state versus the state's average public school tuition. Both numbers reflect statistics from 2014.


As the data suggests, more people have access to higher education; there's been an upward trend in college attendance. At the same time, that pool of people has become increasingly diverse, with minority populations making up a larger portion of the pie. Education's more than becoming available to people; it's becoming available to more types of people.

However, the cost of college can be a barrier to entry. Tuition across the board has been on the rise for decades, and financial aid hasn't been able to keep up. Though diversity is improving from a racial standpoint, the socioeconomic spectrum may be slanted toward the more affluent end.

Higher education plays a vital role in society today. According to more sources than anyone can count, more and more opportunities for advancing one's career require a bachelor's at minimum. It makes sense to say, then, that more access to higher education is a direction society should consider pursuing. The steps taken today to give everyone -- regardless of race or riches -- a chance at education can benefit the future.


Words, Design and Development by Sherman Hewitt.

Sources: The College Board, Data.gov, U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, National Center for Education Statistics, Money Magazine