The Postsecondary Education Student Population
CRS Report for Congress
The Postsecondary Education Student Population
Updated February 9, 2005
Jeffrey J. Kuenzi
Analyst in Social Legislation
Domestic Social Policy Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Postsecondary Education Student Population
In the fall of 2000, 15.3 million students were enrolled in 2- or 4-year colleges
and universities; 12.4 million enrolled as undergraduates. The composition of the
student population, the rates at which different groups in the general population
participate in postsecondary education, and potential future changes in the enrolled
population are all likely to be of particular interest to the U.S. Congress as it
considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
The population of currently enrolled undergraduates is primarily composed of
white, non-Hispanic young adults — two-thirds are white, non-Hispanic and nearly
three-quarters are between 15 and 25. Nonetheless, minority students constitute a
sizeable portion of postsecondary enrollment, particularly among older students —
3-in-10 undergraduates between 15 and 24 and nearly 4-in-10 undergraduates over
24 are either black, Hispanic or Asian. Non-traditional students (i.e., those older than
24 or enrolling on less than a full-time basis) also make up a large portion of the
population — nearly 4 out of every 10 enrolled undergraduates.
With respect to postsecondary participation rates in the general population, race,
ethnicity, and family income are clearly associated with undergraduate enrollment.
Among all high school graduates between 15 and 24, whites and Asians are more
likely to be enrolled in college than are blacks and Hispanics (41% and 51%,
compared to 37% and 34%, respectively). Similarly, high-income individuals in this
age group participate at higher rates than do low-income individuals. The enrollment
rate among all high school graduates with family income of $75,000 or more is 58%;
compared to 34% among all high school graduates with family income less than
Since the inception of the HEA, the female share of total postsecondary
enrollment (including graduate and first professional students) has grown markedly.
Women made up 38% of enrollment in 1965; compared to 55% in 2000. Even with
large racial and ethnic discrepancies in current participation rates, there has been a
general increase in minority enrollment in recent decades. The percent of
postsecondary students identified as black increased from 6% in 1965 to 14% in
2000. Hispanic enrollment increased from less than 1% in 1975 to more than 9% in
What are some of the implications of these findings for the HEA? The
continued positive association between postsecondary participation and income, and
lower participation rates among blacks and Hispanics may spark debate about the
investment in the HEA’s need-based student aid. These findings may also focus
attention on the HEA programs that provide support services to improve
disadvantaged secondary school students’ movement through the educational
pipeline. Further, the finding that non-traditional students make up a substantial
portion of postsecondary education enrollment suggests that concerns about the
ability of HEA student aid programs to serve these students are unlikely to abate in
the near future.
In troduction ..................................................1
Current Postsecondary Education Students..........................2
Demographics of Enrolled Undergraduates......................2
Characteristics of Schools Which Students Attend................6
Traditional versus Non-Traditional Undergraduates...............7
Undergraduate Participation Rates.................................8
Undergraduate Participation Rates Among Individuals Age 15 to 24..9
Undergraduate Participation Rates Among Individuals Over Age 24.12
Future Postsecondary Education Students..........................13
Implications for HEA Policymaking..........................17
List of Figures
Figure 1. Distribution of Undergraduate Racial and Ethnic Groups
by Family Income, Fall 2000.....................................6
Figure 2. Undergraduate Participation Rates by Racial and Ethnic
Group, Fall 2000.............................................11
Figure 3. Postsecondary Education Participation Rates by Family
Income, Fall 2000............................................12
Figure 4. Characteristics of the Postsecondary Education Enrolled
Population, 1965 to 2000.......................................14
Figure 5. Characteristics of Total Population, 1965 to 2015...............15
List of Tables
Table 1. Characteristics of Enrolled Undergraduates by Age, Fall 2000.......3
Table 2. Higher Education Undergraduate Participation Rates, Fall 2000.....10
The Postsecondary Education
In the fall of 2000, 15.3 million students were enrolled in 2- or 4-year colleges1
and universities. Thirty-five years earlier, in the fall of 1965, the year when the
Higher Education Act (HEA) was enacted, there were just 5.7 million students. The
composition of the current student population, the rates at which different groups in
the general population enroll in postsecondary education, and potential future
changes in the enrolled population are all issues relevant to federal higher education
policymaking. These data are likely to be of particular interest to the U.S. Congress2
as it considers the reauthorization of the HEA.
This report will focus mainly on the 12.4 million enrolled as undergraduates3 in
the fall of 2000, describing key attributes of this currently enrolled population. It
will also analyze current rates at which different socioeconomic groups participate
in postsecondary education. Finally, the report will consider the future composition
of the postsecondary student population. These topics provide an important context
for consideration and development of federal higher education policy. This report
will not be updated.
HEA Policymaking. The core of the HEA is its array of programs providing
financial assistance to students, particularly those with financial need. Need-based
aid is a key element in the long-standing HEA mission to expand access to
postsecondary education. Partly as a result of this mission, the topics analyzed in this
report raise issues that are fundamentally linked to HEA policy. For example, the
1 Data are from the Bureau of the Census’ Current Population Survey (CPS) for October,
2000. CPS postsecondary education enrollment statistics are a snapshot of persons enrolled
at that point in time. Further, the student population analyzed in this report includes only
individuals attending courses that are part of a degree-granting program (associate’s degree
or higher). As a result, 3.4 million other individuals taking business, vocational, technical,
secretarial, trade, or correspondence courses are not part of this analysis.
2 For background on reauthorization of the HEA, see CRS Issue Brief IB10097, The Higher
Education Act: Reauthorization Status and Issues, by James Stedman.
3 In the CPS, students are classified by year of postsecondary education in which they are
attending (academic year, not calendar year). Undergraduates are those identified in CPS
data as attending their first through fourth year of postsecondary education. As a result, no
matter how many calendar years a student has been enrolled, the year in school reflects his
or her status academically (e.g., a student who is in his or her fifth calendar year but who
has junior status is identified in these data as being a third year student). Those in their fifth
year or higher year of postsecondary education are considered graduate students.
sheer number of individuals enrolled in postsecondary education is important because
policy changes may affect a large number of individuals. Further, costs to the federal
government of policies seeking to extend assistance or services across a significant
portion of this enrollment are likely to be high simply because of its size. Diversity
of this student population has important implications for HEA programs. Eligibility
for current HEA need-based student aid programs is directly affected by such factors
as students’ income and whether they are enrolled full-time or part-time. In addition,
the success or failure of the federal multi-billion dollar investment in HEA student
aid programs has often been measured in terms of evidence of change in the access
to postsecondary education of different socioeconomic groups.
Data Source. This analysis of the current student population, higher
education participation rates, and future enrollment is based on data made available
by the U.S. Census Bureau. The first two sections, which focus on the enrolled
student body and on participation rates, are based on CPS data collected during
October 2000.4 The concluding section relies on historical October CPS data as well
as past population estimates and future population projections made by the Census
Current Postsecondary Education Students
This section paints a portrait of current undergraduate students in terms of age,
gender, race and ethnicity, family income, enrollment status (full-time or less than
full-time), institutional level (4-year or 2-year), and institutional control (public or
private).6 It also considers the relative balance between traditional and non-
traditional students at the undergraduate level.
Demographics of Enrolled Undergraduates. The postsecondary enrolled
population is predominantly white, non-Hispanic, under age 25, and slightly more
female than male. Also, these students are from families with incomes above the
Table 1 presents data on the enrolled undergraduate population in the fall of
2000.7 It focuses on how various characteristics of the enrolled population differ
across broad age groups — those 15 to 24 years of age, and those 25 and older. The
undergraduate population is relatively young; its median age is 21 years.8 However,
4 The CPS is a monthly survey of approximately 50,000 households. The October iteration
of the survey asks respondents supplemental questions about their education.
5 The intergroup comparisons made in this report have been tested using CPS guidelines and
were found to be statistically significant unless noted otherwise.
6 The CPS data do not distinguish between enrollment in private nonprofit institutions and
enrollment in private for-profit (proprietary) institutions.
7 Generally, the youngest age cohorts considered here begin with age 15, often the earliest
age at which census data indicate individuals are estimated to be enrolled in postsecondary
8 This is the age that divides the undergraduate population in half.
the mean undergraduate age is 249 — indicating that a portion of this population is
significantly older than the median. As shown in Table 1, 72% of undergraduates
are between 15 and 24, while over one-fourth (28%) are 25 or older. Looking more
closely at the 25 and above population reveals that 16% of undergraduates are
between 25 and 34, 8% between 35 and 44, and 4% 45 or older (data not included in
Table 1. Characteristics of Enrolled Undergraduates by Age,
15 Years old15 to 24 Years25 Years old
Characteristicand olderoldand older
Hispanic 10% 10% 11%
Less than $25,00023%22%26%
$25,000-49,999 27% 24% 34%
$50,000-$74,999 21% 21% 22%
$75,000 or more29%33%18%
Median family income$45,000$55,000$45,000
Full-time 72% 83% 40%
Source: October 2000 Current Population Survey.
9 This is the average age of the undergraduate population.
The overall undergraduate population is 56% female. This female majority
increases markedly with age. Among those between 15 and 24, the proportion
female is 54%; among those 25 and older, 60% are female. Among those over 34,
the female share rises to 65% (data not shown in Table 1). It appears that women
have a greater propensity than men to pursue postsecondary education at later stages
of the life course.10
The white, non-Hispanic student population accounts for 69% of all
undergraduates, compared to 15% for black, non-Hispanics, 10% for Hispanics, and
7% for Asian, non-Hispanics.11 Minority representation is higher among older
undergraduates. Of undergraduates 15 to 24 years of age, 29% are minority; of
undergraduates over the age of 24, 37% are minority.
The best available measure in the October CPS of the economic status of
postsecondary students is family income. That is, the combined income from all
sources for the student and all of those identified by the survey as being in the
student’s family. The students’ family includes all relatives by birth, marriage, or
adoption that reside in the family household as well as the student (regardless of12
whether he or she lives elsewhere for part of the calendar year).
It is important to note that the ability of CPS sampling methodology to link
students living away from home back to their families is limited in certain cases.
Family income is the sum of income for all household members who are related to
the “reference person,” or RP, (i.e., the person who owns or rents the household
sampled in the survey — and not necessarily the survey respondent). Among the
undergraduates identified in October 2000, 31% were the RP, 60% were related to
the RP (mostly as children and spouses), and 9% were not related to the RP (mostly
partners and roommates). Since members of the last group are not related to the RP,
family income is not available and they are not included in the income figures
reported here. Among those who were the RP, about half (14% of the entire sample
of undergraduates) had no relatives in the household. Although family income is
reported for these individuals (it is equal to their personal income), whether they may
have access to the income of other possible family members is unknown.
Without specific information about the actual funds transferred between family
members, the CPS measures students’ potential access to financial resources through
the amount of family income and the family relationships identified by the survey.
For the large majority of cases, family income as measured by the CPS serves as a
reasonable indicator of this potential. In addition, distinct from issues of actual
versus potential resources, family income is useful as a measure of students’
10 At nearly every age level above 24 years old, the participation rate of females is higher
than that of males. Participation rates are explored more fully in a subsequent section of this
11 These groups are subsequently referred to in this report as whites, blacks, Asians, and
Hispanics. Following U.S. Census Bureau definitions, Hispanics can be of any race.
12 Students away at college “are still classified as household members even though they are
not present in the household during the survey week.” See U.S. Census Bureau. Technical
Paper 63RV: Current Population Survey — Design and Methodology, March 2002.
socioeconomic background. This use of family income is consistent with the
following section of this report which presents data on postsecondary participation
rates of individuals in the general population coming from different family income
Just over half of those enrolled in postsecondary education are members of
families with incomes under $50,000 — nearly one-quarter were under $25,000 and
well over one-quarter are over $75,000.14 Median family income for students age 15
to 24 is $55,000, compared to $45,000 for those over 24. Figure 1 presents family
income for these two age groups by racial and ethnic background.
13 The financial relationship between a student and his or her parents is measured differently
under the system established by the HEA for determining a student’s financial need for
federal student aid programs. It defines a student’s financial connection to his or her
parents’ income and assets in terms of several specific characteristics. A student is
considered financially independent from his or her parents if any of the following apply:st
the student is 24 years old or older by December 31 of the award year, is an orphan or ward
of the court (or was until age 18), is a veteran of the Armed Forces, is a graduate or
professional student, is married, or has dependents other than a spouse. Any student not
meeting one of these conditions is considered financially dependent on his or her parents.
None of these conditions measures whether a student is actually financially dependent or
independent of parents. For example, for financial aid purposes, a student who has a
dependent child and who resides with his or her parents is treated as financially independent,
even if the parents contribute substantial resources to the student.
14 Family income data based on the federal need analysis definition of independence are
gathered periodically through the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).
This survey of a nationally representative sample of students was most recently conducted
for 1999-2000; it gathers data on student and family financing of postsecondary education,
as well as general characteristics of the enrolled population. CRS estimates using the 1999-
2000 NPSAS show a somewhat higher percentage of undergraduates in the under $25,000
category, and a complementary lower percentage in the $75,000 and over category. This is
likely a function, at least in part, of the attribution of income to students in NPSAS based
on federal need analysis dependency rules rather than actual or potential access to the
income of other family members.
Figure 1. Distribution of Undergraduate Racial and Ethnic Groups by
Family Income, Fall 2000
60%$75,000 or More
50%$50,000 to $74,999$25,000 to $49,999
40%Less than $25,000
Wh i t e Bl ack Hi sp an i c Asi an Wh i t e Bl ack Hi sp an i c Asi a n
Undergraduates Under Age 25Undergraduates Age 25 and Older
Looking at those under 25 (the four bars on the left side of the figure), white
students clearly have access to greater financial resources through their families than
do students of other groups. Over 40% of whites are members of families with an
income of at least $75,000, compared to 14% of blacks, 12% of Hispanics, and 29%
of Asians. Conversely, 16% of white students have family income below $25,000,
compared to 38% of blacks, 32% of Hispanics, and 37% of Asians. These racial and
ethnic disparities decline among students 25 and over; however, older minority
students are still more likely to be members of families with less income than are
Characteristics of Schools Which Students Attend. According to the
October 2000 CPS, 69% of undergraduate students enrolled in the fall of 2000
attended 4-year institutions and 81% attended public schools.15 Students 15 to 24 are
more likely than older students to attend 4-year schools. Women, blacks and
Hispanics are more likely than men and other racial/ethnic groups to attend 2-year
schools. Median family income of those attending 4-year schools is approximately
15 NPSAS estimates of the distribution of students across institutional sectors differ from
those reported here from the CPS. For example, NPSAS shows a higher percentage of
students enrolled in 2-year institutions than does the CPS (at least 42% compared to an
estimated 31%). Among the differences between the two surveys contributing to this
disparity in estimates is that the NPSAS data are based on enrollments across an entire
academic year, while the CPS data reflect enrollments at a point in time (October).
$10,000 higher than for those attending 2-year schools — $55,000 and $45,000
In terms of public versus private schools, no significant disparities were found
in the CPS data with respect to age, gender or race. However, Hispanics are much
less likely than non-Hispanics to attend private schools. In addition, those who are
attending private schools have higher family incomes than those attending public
schools — $55,000 and $45,000 respectively.
Traditional versus Non-Traditional Undergraduates. There is concern
among some that HEA student aid programs are designed for the so-called traditional
student and may not adequately serve the non-traditional postsecondary education16
student. This portion of the report explores the extent to which the undergraduate
population is non-traditional.
The non-traditional label is imprecise and much debated.17 There is no
consensus on the characteristics that distinguish traditional from non-traditional
students. Underlying this issue is an understanding that today’s student population
includes a significant number of individuals who differ from the majority of students
in the mid-1960s through early 1970s when much of the present HEA student aid
framework was constructed.
The present analysis focuses on two characteristics to distinguish the traditional
from the non-traditional undergraduate populations — age and enrollment status.
These two characteristics are among those most commonly used to make this
distinction. Further, they are likely to be associated with additional factors that
others have used to identify the non-traditional student, such as working full-time
while going to school and having dependents.18 With regard to age, for purposes of
16 For example, Roberts T. Jones, president of the National Alliance of Business, is reported
by The Chronicle of Higher Education (New Panel Opens ‘National Dialogue’ on Federal
Student-Aid Policy, February 28, 2002) to have stated that student aid programs do not
address well the needs of nontraditional students “cycling in and out” of postsecondary
17 See, for example, the discussion of who is a non-traditional student in: U.S. Department
of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Nontraditional Undergraduates:
Trends in Enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and Persistence and Attainment among 1989-1990
Beginning Postsecondary Students. NCES 97-578, November 1996 (Hereafter cited as
NCES, Nontraditional Undergraduates).
18 The NCES study on Nontraditional Undergraduates identified seven different
characteristics that it associated with a non-traditional status for undergraduates: being
financially independent (parental income and assets are not considered for federal need
analysis purposes), having delayed entry into postsecondary education, enrolling part-time,
working full-time, having dependents, being a single parent, or completing high school by
obtaining a GED or other certificate. For each of the 3 years analyzed by that study, a
distinct majority of all undergraduates were considered to be at least “minimally
nontraditional” (having at least one of the non-traditional characteristics). The percentage
ranged from approximately 64.6% in fall 1986 to 69.6% in fall 1992. The three most
predominant factors were age, enrollment status, and financial dependency. The last factor
this analysis, we analyze the portions of the undergraduate population that are under
and over the age of 25. The enrollment status is divided into student enrolled on a
full-time basis (enrolled for 12 or more credit hours) and those enrolled less than a
As noted above, according to October 2000 CPS data, 72% of all
undergraduates are under the age of 25; 28% are 25 or older. Undergraduates
enrolled on a full-time basis make up 72% of today’s undergraduates, while 28% are
part-time. If the traditional student is defined as one under 25 years of age enrolled
on a full-time basis, 61% of all of today’s undergraduates meet that definition,
leaving the remaining 39% of undergraduates with a non-traditional status.
Comparing the characteristics of the traditional and non-traditional students, we
find that non-traditional students are more likely to be enrolled in 2-year, public
institutions; they are also more likely to be minority and to have relatively low
income. Of traditional students, 78% attend 4-year institutions and 78% attend
public schools; in contrast, for non-traditional students, these percentages are 57%
and 86% respectively. Non-traditional students are more likely to be minority than
are traditional students (36% compared to 28%). Blacks account for much of this
difference — representing 13% of traditional students and 18% of non-traditional
students. The median family income of traditional students is $55,000 — compared
to $45,000 for non-traditional students. Non-traditional students’ family income does
not vary by 2-year/4-year or public/private school status. However, among traditional
students, family income varies from a median of $67,500 for those attending all
private institutions to $55,000 for those in public, 4-year schools and $45,000 for
those in all 2-year schools.
Undergraduate Participation Rates
The above data on currently enrolled students are limited in what they can say
about the important issue of educational access. The relevant question to ask in
terms of access is not, what proportion of enrolled students come from various
population sub-groups (the question addressed above), but rather, what proportion
of various sub-groups are enrolling in postsecondary education. To this end, the
analysis now turns to rates of participation in higher education among various
socioeconomic sectors of the U.S. population.
First, it is important to note that two factors have a very large impact on
participation rates: age and high school completion.19 Among all individuals in the
U.S. 15 years old and older, 6% were enrolled as undergraduates in the fall of 2000,
— financial dependency — may be a somewhat problematic distinguishing characteristic
since the definition of independent financial status for federal student aid purposes has
changed over time, leaving some question as to its utility as a measure for these purposes.
19 High school completion is defined in this analysis as either the granting of a diploma or
the completion of a General Educational Development (GED) test. Delineating the impact
of differences in the participation rates of diploma recipients and GED completers is beyond
the scope of the present analysis.
compared to 23% of those between 15 and 24 and 2% of those over age 24.
Similarly, among all high school graduates 15 years old and older,20 7% were
enrolled as undergraduates in the fall of 2000, compared to 40% of high school
graduates between 15 and 24, and 2% of high school graduates over age 24. Thus,
the following presentation of participation rates by population sub-group will be
made while controlling for age and high school completion.
Undergraduate Participation Rates Among Individuals Age 15 to 24.
Table 2 presents the rates of undergraduate postsecondary education participation
among various sub-group populations by age and high school completion. Among
all those in the general population age 15 to 24, the participation rate for females is
25% and 21% for males — that is, 1 in 4 females and just over 1 in 5 males in this
age group are in postsecondary education. Among high school graduates 15-24, the
percentage point difference in postsecondary education attendance is roughly the
same as it is for everyone in that age group — 42% for females and 39% for males.
20 Although many of those in the 15 to 18 age group are still in high school, the CPS data
identifies enough individuals in this age group who are enrolled in postsecondary education
to warrant the use of a lower age bound of 15 in this analysis.
Table 2. Higher Education Undergraduate Participation Rates,
15 to 24 25 to 34 35 Years old
CharacteristicYears oldYears oldand older
school school school
Total gr aduates T otal gr aduates T otal gr aduates
Fema le 25% 42% 6% 7% 1% 1%
Male 21% 39% 5% 6% 1% 1%
Hispanic 15% 34% 4% 7% 1% 2%
Less than $25,00017%34%6%9%1%2%
$25,000-49,999 19% 33% 5% 6% 1% 2%
$50,000-$74,999 27% 48% 5% 5% 1% 2%
$75,000 or More34%58%4%4%1%1%
Source: October 2000 Current Population Survey.
Whites age 15 to 24 have a higher participation rate than blacks and Hispanics
of the same age and a lower participation rate than Asians of that age. This is true
whether or not the population has graduated from high school. These patterns in
participation rates are depicted in Figure 2 below.
Figure 2. Undergraduate Participation Rates by Racial and Ethnic
Group, Fall 2000
40 % Hi s p a n i c
30 % Bl ackWh i t e
20 % As i a n
Total 15-24 Year Olds15-24 Year Old High School Graduates
Figure 2 shows that each group’s participation rate in postsecondary education
increases substantially when the focus is on the high school graduate population.
Blacks and Hispanics show the greatest percentage increase in their participation
rates. The black rate nearly doubles (from 20% to 37%) while the Hispanic rate more
than doubles (from 15% to 34%). Nevertheless, there remain gaps in participation
rates for high school graduates across racial and ethnic groups.
As shown in Figure 3 below, postsecondary education participation for 15 to
24 year olds grows as family income increases. At the highest income, the
enrollment rate is substantially greater than the rate for the low income portion of the
population. The enrollment rate of individuals with family income of $75,000 or
more is twice that of those with less than $25,000 (34% compared to 17%). In
contrast, when the enrollment rate of high school graduates is compared, the high
income participation rate is 70% higher than the low income rate. Nevertheless, the
percentage point difference is actually significantly greater — 24 percentage points
compared to 17 percentage points.
Figure 3. Postsecondary Education Participation Rates by Family
Income, Fall 2000
Less than $25,000
30% $50,000-$74,999 $75,000 or More
Total 15-24 Year Olds15-24 Year Old High School Graduates
Undergraduate Participation Rates Among Individuals Over Age 24.
As noted earlier, the 2000 CPS data reveal that about 4 in 10 undergraduates are non-
traditional students (i.e., over 24 or part-time). Because this is a significant
proportion of the student population, it is useful to look at participation rates among
those over age 24 by socioeconomic status.
A review of the right-hand columns in Table 2 reveals that the 25 to 34 year old
participation rates for high school graduates who are either female, Hispanic, or have
low family income are slightly higher than the all persons rate. Also, larger
proportions of these groups are enrolled in postsecondary education than are males,
whites, or high income individuals. For example, 6% of females 25 to 34 are
enrolled compared to 5% of males that age, 9% of blacks 25 to 34 are enrolled
compared to 5% of whites, and 6% of 25 to 34 year olds with family income under
$25,000 are enrolled compared to 4% of those over $75,000.
A useful way to look at the data presented in Table 2 is to break the
participation rates into two categories: (1) sub-populations that have higher rates
than their comparison population21 at every age, and (2) sub-populations that have
lower rates in the 15-24 age group and higher rates for those over 24. Females and
Asians fit in the first category and blacks and Hispanics and lower income persons
fit in the second category. Specifically, females have higher rates than males in all
three age groupings and Asians have higher rates than whites in all three age
21 The comparison population for race and ethnicity is white; for gender, it is male; and for
income, it is the $75,000 or more category.
On the other hand, blacks had lower rates than whites in the 15 to 24 age group,
but had higher rates in the 25 to 34 age group. Following a similar trend, those with
low income had lower rates than those with higher income in the 15 to 24 age group,
but had higher rates in the 25 to 34 age group. Finally, Hispanic high school
graduates have lower rates than white high school graduates in the 15 to 24 age
group, but have higher rates in the 25 to 34 age group (comparative rates in the total
The interpretation of the findings for the female/male comparison and the
Asian/white comparison appears straight-forward, females and Asians attend
postsecondary education at a higher rate regardless of their age or incidence of high
school completion. However, making sense of the findings among other inter-group
comparisons is more complex.
That blacks, those with below average income, and Hispanic high school
graduates had higher rates in the 25 to 34 age group could mean either that these
individuals take longer to complete a postsecondary education degree or that they are
less likely to enter postsecondary education directly out of high school. Their lower
participation rates in the 15 to 24 age group as well as the convergence of the income
distributions among those over 24 in different racial/ethnic groups seen earlier in
Figure 1 gives strong support to the latter explanation. That is, upper income whites
appear much more likely to start and finish school before age 24, while lower income
non-whites do not follow this pattern. However, without longitudinal data or
information on time taken to complete a degree, it is difficult to draw definitive
Future Postsecondary Education Students
Two sets of trendlines provide insight into the composition of the future
postsecondary student population. The first, presented in Figure 4, are the historic
trends in total postsecondary education enrollment among various groups. The
second, presented in Figure 5, are the past and future growth trends for these groups
in the overall population.
Figure 4 shows that the characteristics of the total postsecondary enrolled
population has changed significantly since the enactment of the HEA in 1965.22 In
general, postsecondary students are now more likely to be female, minority, and over
22 The data used for this figure are for all individuals enrolled in postsecondary
education, regardless of the year of enrollment, not just undergraduates as is true for the
previous sections of this report. Further, the enrolled population is capped at age 34 because
that was the age limit for CPS data published through much of this period. As a result, the
percentages of enrollment for different groups discussed here differ from those
presented earlier in this report. The income data used are based on the number of families
with at least one dependent child in postsecondary education, rather than on the number of
individuals as was the case in data reported earlier in this report.
Figure 4. Characteristics of the Postsecondary Education Enrolled
Population, 1965 to 2000
1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000
% White% 15-24% Female% Income < Median% Black% Hispanic
Figure 4 shows the dramatic increase in female postsecondary enrollment that
has occurred over the last 35 years. In 1965, only 38% of students enrolled in
postsecondary education were female — compared to 55% in 2000. There was a
similarly dramatic decline in the postsecondary education population below the age
of 25. In 1965, 84% of enrolled students were 15 to 24 years old — compared to
The percentage of postsecondary education students identified as white substantially
decreased (from 94% to 78%); the black share of enrollment more than doubled
(from 6% to 14%); Hispanic enrollment rose significantly from less than 1% in 1975
to somewhat more than 9% in 2000. Finally, a relatively steady proportion (about
63%) of the enrolled population had a family income above the median family
income for that year.
Are these trends likely to continue into the future? A consideration of the
historical and projected changes in the general population shown in Figure 5 below
offers some insight.
Figure 5. Characteristics of Total Population, 1965 to 2015
1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
% White% Female% 14-24% Black% Hispanic
Figure 5 shows the actual and projected changes in the characteristics of the
overall population from 1965 through 2015. As seen here, the proportion of females
in the population has been steady and is expected to remain steady at just over 50%.
The proportion of the overall population age 14 to 24 reached a high point in the
aftermath of the baby boom (21% in 1975) and then began to decline. It is expected
to continue to decline into the future (down to 15% in 2015) as the elderly portion of23
the U.S. population continues to grow. Further, the historical and projected data
show a steady decrease in the white proportion of the population from 87% in 1965
to 80% in 2015. In contrast, the relatively rapid increase in the Hispanic
representation in the population is expected to continue — rising from 4% in 1970
to 16% in 2015.
A comparison of the two preceding figures shows that demographics alone have
not dictated changes in the characteristics of the enrolled population. For some
groups, there clearly has been a change in behavior. For example, females have made
up a relatively consistent share of the total population but have significantly increased
their representation in postsecondary education over time. This is primarily a
function of a growth in the participation rate for women throughout this time period.
23 Published Census Bureau population projections are by 5-year age group; thus, the age
breakdown considered here (14 to 24) is not identical to that utilized previously in this
report (15 to 24).
The patterns for the younger age cohort appear more complex. This cohort’s
share of total population declined from the mid 1970s until 2000 and is projected to
continue to decline; the representation of this cohort in the enrolled student
population declined until the mid 1990s. Even while declining as a portion of the
enrolled student population, the participation rate of this age group in postsecondary
education was increasing (data not shown here). Indeed, a higher proportion of this
age cohort is enrolled today than previously. These data are not sufficient to reach
any precise conclusion about whether there will be marked changes in the
representation of this younger age cohort and concurrently of older age cohorts in
postsecondary education in the near future.24 Nevertheless, given the currently
substantial representation in postsecondary education of older age groups, a similar
distribution will probably continue in the near term.
The forces which have given rise to increased non-white and Hispanic
participation may have an important demographic component. As these groups have
grown into larger proportions of the general population, they have grown into larger
proportions of the postsecondary education population. The Hispanic trendlines are
particularly prominent. The major source of population growth in the United States
during the last decade has been immigration and demographers agree that
immigration will continue to fuel population growth in the coming years. Since the
vast majority of contemporary immigrants are Hispanic, the Hispanic share of the
total population is expected to continue to grow through 2015. Based on
demographics alone, it seems reasonable to expect that the proportion of Hispanics
in the postsecondary population will increase in the future. Further, given their
overall representation in the general population, any increase in participation rates,
moving closer to those of whites or Asians, would lead to greater Hispanic
representation in postsecondary education.
Selected Findings. Among the significant findings presented in this report
are the following. Race and ethnicity, and family income are clearly associated with
undergraduate enrollment. For example, whites and Asians aged 15 to 24 are more
likely to be enrolled than are blacks and Hispanics; similarly, individuals in this age
group with higher family income participate at higher rates than do low-income
individuals. At the same time, blacks and Hispanics constitute a sizeable portion of
postsecondary enrollment — nearly one-quarter of 15 to 24 year old undergraduates
and nearly a third of undergraduates over 24 years of age. Since the inception of the
HEA, the minority share of postsecondary enrollment at all levels has grown
markedly. Projected population changes suggest that Hispanics, in particular, will
become a major potential source of minority students.
Non-traditional students (i.e., those older than 24 or enrolling on less than a full-
time basis) are a large portion of undergraduate enrollment — nearly 4 out of every
24 The U.S. Department of Education projects that the 14 to 24 year old portion of total
degree-credit enrollment in postsecondary education will not change substantially from 2000
to 2011 (Projections of Education Statistics to 2011, NCES 2001-083).
Female representation in postsecondary education has surged during the lifetime
of the HEA. Women now make up well over half of enrollment. They appear to be
particularly represented among older students enrolling as undergraduates in
Implications for HEA Policymaking. What are some of the more
important implications of some of these finding for policymaking regarding the
HEA? Three clusters of implications are considered below.
Need-Based Student Aid. The continued association of family income with
postsecondary participation despite a substantial investment in HEA need-based
student aid may raise concerns about the effectiveness of these programs. As this
report delineates, individuals from higher income families are more likely to enroll
than are ones from poorer circumstances. Among the questions such a finding raises
are the following: Are HEA need-based student aid programs adequately funded and
appropriately targeted? Is the mix of HEA grants, loans, and work appropriate for
students from different family incomes? Are there needs, other than financial, that
should also be addressed?
Serving the Pipeline. The last question above helps to identify the second
cluster of implications — the impact of the HEA on the K-12 education pipeline that
feeds students into postsecondary education. The HEA authorizes several programs
that serve to complement the Act’s need-based student aid by supporting academic
and non-academic intervention activities for disadvantaged secondary school
students. These programs — principally the TRIO programs and the Gaining Early
Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) — provide such
services as tutoring, counseling, and mentoring to disadvantaged secondary school
students in an effort to enable them to finish high school and pursue postsecondary
education.25 Such programs are premised on an understanding that enrollment of
disadvantaged individuals in postsecondary education is not a function only of
financial needs. Academic and other needs are there to be addressed.
The findings in this report that young black and Hispanic high school graduates
participate in undergraduate education at lower rates than do whites and Asians, and
that low-income individuals have much lower participation rates than do high-income
individuals may raise concerns that the array of HEA’s student aid and support
services programs have not fully met their objectives. This may prompt a closer look
at the funding levels for those programs, the extent to which the support services
programs effectively deliver their services, and the extent to which they truly
complement need-based student aid. Debate may also center on what further steps,
if any, would be appropriate to take in the HEA to improve the academic preparation
at the K-12 level, particularly that of low-income and minority children. For
25 See CRS Report RL31622, TRIO and GEAR UP Programs: Status and Issues, by Jeffrey
example, the current HEA program addressing the training of prospective teachers
might be considered in light of these findings.26
Non-Traditional Students. As was noted, there has been concern about the
ability of HEA programs, particularly student aid programs, to serve non-traditional
students. However valid those concerns might be (an issue beyond the scope of the
present paper), it is clear that the non-traditional student is a major presence in
postsecondary education. At a minimum, this suggests that the concerns expressed
to date are unlikely to abate in the near term. Further, there may be merit in looking
more closely at the non-traditional student. First, as was also suggested earlier,
simply defining what population is appropriately identified as non-traditional is not
without debate. Second, consideration might be given to assessing non-traditional
students’ participation in HEA programs, the actual needs (financial or other) that
such students have for assistance from these programs, and what barriers, if any,
might curtail their appropriate participation.
26 CRS Report RL31254, Pass Rates as an Accountability Measure for Teacher Education,
by James Stedman.