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College Education in America: The Facts

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times describing the plight of a rural Midwestern public university that was eliminating some of its liberal arts and humanities majors and faculty in order to accommodate the more “practical” needs of its students and in response to a shrinking student body, which was partially attributed to falling birth rates and partially to young people leaving the area for the city. The article suggested that this might be a pattern that was becoming typical of other public universities. I decided to do some research to determine if this was a pattern in American post-secondary education.

Is college and university attendance growing or shrinking in the U.S?

Overall college and university graduation has been increasing slightly each year with an increase of about a million students every ten years for the last 25 years and only projected to slow very slightly through 2027 (Statista). Enrollment increased faster between 1965 and 1990 and jumped during 2010 and 2011, probably due to job opportunities falling and young adults choosing college instead of a job during this latter period. About 75% of students are enrolled in public institutions and 25% in private universities or colleges. From 2000-01 to 2015-16, enrollment in associate degree programs increased at a higher rate (74%) than the increase in enrollment in bachelor degree programs (54%) (National Center for Education Statistics, NCES).

Not only are the raw numbers of college graduates continuing to increase, the percentage of young adults with post-secondary degrees is increasing. A higher percentage of females than males obtain associate, bachelor’s and even post-graduate degrees, and this difference has widened between 2000 and 2017 (NCES). In terms of ethnicity, a higher percentage of Asians obtain college degrees, although the percentages for Asians has remained stable between 2000 and 2017, while substantially increasing for all other ethnicities (except Native Americans), narrowing the gap between Asians and all others, but with the gaps between White an Black and White and Hispanic remaining the same, despite all of these ethnicities making substantial increases. In the total population of U.S. people between the ages of 25-29, the percentage with an associate degree or higher increased from 38% to 46% between 2000 and 2017, and the percentage who obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 29% to 36%. Having a college degree or even just some college education was associated with greater likelihood of employment than just having a high school diploma, and this difference increased between 2000 and 2017 (NCES). For the year 2016, having an associate degree increased average income by 20% over having a high school diploma, and having a bachelor’s degree increased average income by 57% for people in the 25-34 year old age range. These differences narrowed slightly between 2000 and 2016, and at that time all incomes had declined from 2000 levels, reflecting the continuing effects of the recession (NCES), although the recent growth in employment and wages may have brought these levels back up.

How does family income affect obtaining a college degree in the U.S.?

Parents and students themselves in the U.S.still pay for the lion’s share (47%) of college education through income and savings according to a 2018 study by Sallie Mae. Parents’ income and savings covered 34% of the costs and student income and savings covered 13% of the cost. Scholarships and grants covered 28% of college costs and borrowing covered 24%, with parent borrowing covering 10% and student borrowing covering 14%. These figures suggest that family income is a strong factor in determining who obtains a college degree, and a 2016 report from Johns Hopkins University confirmed this. Young people whose families fall in the lowest economic quartile in the U.S. graduated from college at a 14% rate while those from the highest quartile had a 60% college degree rate. Even comparing students with similar high school grade and test score levels, found a 33% differences in college graduation rates between low SES and high SES students, suggesting that differences in academic preparation  is a factor, but not the major factor in determining the effects of SES on college graduation rates. The Johns Hopkins report indicates that major factors affecting college completion rates as a function of income are the cost, the need to balance work and school for low income students, and attendance at institutions with lower graduation rates among low income students. 

What are U.S. students studying and has that changed?

According to NCES, at the bachelor’s degree level, degrees in business have been increasing and represent 19% of degrees awarded in 2015-16, although degrees in health professions and related programs have shown the largest increase and now represent 12% of all degrees conferred. Biological and biomedical sciences and engineering, as well as psychology have all shown an increase in awarded degrees from 2000-01 to 2015-16. Social sciences and history increased degrees from 200-01 to 2011-12, then decreased up to 2015-16, although still representing 8% of all degrees conferred, which remains more than any other field except business or health professions. Overall, 18 % of bachelor’s degrees were awarded in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Associate degrees show a different picture than bachelor’s degrees with 38% of degrees awarded in liberal arts, sciences, general studies and humanities, which were also the fields showing the greatest increase in degrees conferred between 2000-01 and 2015-16. Health professions and related programs showed a steady increase in degrees from 2000-01 to 2011-12, then a drop that continued through 2015-16. Only 8% of associate degrees were conferred in STEM fields in 2015-16.

While one would think that two-year degrees might be more in technical areas related to, for instance, computer science, the fact that they are often in liberal arts or general studies and seldom in STEM fields is surprising.  Perhaps this reflects students who are planning to transfer taking distributive courses outside of their major while at community colleges, or perhaps community colleges offer fewer STEM courses. It’s not clear to me, but having seen my son obtain a single year of intensive training in IT technology and becoming fully employable and well-paid (better than his Ph.D father), I can’t see why more students wouldn’t obtain a two-year degree in a technical field, and I don’t know what they would do with a two-year liberal arts education if that’s where they stop.

Do ethnicity or gender affect choice of major?

The statistics also show what was, for me, a surprising finding that our stereotypes about race and gender as it relates to higher education are pretty accurate. Compared to men, women predominate in multidisciplinary studies, health professions, liberal arts, and general studies, and psychology, while men predominate in computer science and engineering. Gender numbers are balanced in social sciences and history. In terms of race, Asians are substantially overrepresented in STEM fields, at both the associate degree level and the bachelor’s degree level.


American colleges and universities are not suffering a loss of students, nor are they expected to in the next ten years. Neither are liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences becoming passé as majors, although there has been a slight decline in degrees awarded in these fields since 2012, but they still make up a sizeable share of the student body.

We often hear that college is not for everyone and that a flaw in our American attitudes about education is that it regards a four-year college degree as a qualification for success when other, more technical or practical training programs could better meet the needs of many of our young people. It remains true, however, that obtaining a college degree, particularly a bachelor’s degree or higher has a strong positive effect on likelihood of employment and on income in the U.S. 

College and university education is not changing much, at least in terms of enrollment, degrees and fields of study and who goes to college and obtains a degree, but college is still expensive and family income is a major determinant in who gets a degree. Most U.S. students attend public colleges and universities. Although these may be less costly than private institutions, cost is still a major factor in determining who attends and who graduates from college. The largest source of funds in paying for college remains parental income and savings. Academically strong students from high income families are two times more likely to graduate from college than similarly academically strong students from low income families, and the ability to pay for college as well as choice of college if one does attend college are major factors determining these differences.

What also stands out is that two-year degrees don’t seem to meet the needs of people who stop their education at that point. A “well-rounded” education, which includes a good dose of humanities, social sciences and other liberal studies is still obtained by most graduates, but the failure of our two year institutions to provide STEM related associate degrees to the students who attend them is difficult to understand.

Reducing college costs and/or increasing financial assistance could narrow the gap in college graduation rates between rich and poor families. But it’s also true that in our current system, poorer students who often aim for associate degrees, often major in fields that don’t lead directly to better employment.  Our two-year degree programs are not responding to needs in the  STEM fields, and are mostly providing degrees in non-specific general studies, humanities, and liberal arts.

In my opinion, liberal arts social science and humanities education remain important even if more students, particularly those who attend two-year schools, need to major in STEM fields. I regarded some of my humanities courses in history, literature and philosophy as the most worthwhile parts of my education in terms of enriching the overall quality of my life and sharpening my critical thinking and appreciation of a wide variety of viewpoints.  When our social and political system requires that its citizens be informed about history and learn how to detect their own biases and how to evaluate arguments and data it is still desirable that as many of our citizens as possible receive an education that gives them the background and skills to do these things. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Fund and others, have found that “millennials” are woefully uninformed about history, government, science and even about our American constitution (see my earlier article: “How to Combat Russian [and Others’] Misinformation"). Remember that only a little over a third of Americans of this age have a four-year college degree. A lot of broad education can get done in high school, and this is another reason to not turn high school into purely vocational or technical training and, in our technology dominated society, make at least two-year technical/science education after high school more accessible and more typical.

Many people have their own opinions and goals with regard to our United States post-secondary educational system, but I hope that this essay will provide them with some fact-based information to inform their opinions.





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