Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Is College Worth It?

Chapter 2: Trends in College Enrollment, Completion, Cost and Debt

This section highlights key trends in college enrollment, attainment of college degrees, college expenses and student debt levels. It is based on data from government sources and the College Board, a not-for-profit membership organization of colleges, universities and other educational entities.

College Enrollment

In recent decades, a steadily growing share of young adults have enrolled in college. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, about one-quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college at any given moment. By 2009, more than 40% of that age group were enrolled in college, the highest level ever recorded. Young females are more likely to be enrolled in college than young males. Young whites are more likely to be enrolled in college than their black and Hispanic peers, but college enrollment has increased for all racial and ethnic groups.

In the fall of 2009, 12.4 million students younger than age 25 were enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities. About two-thirds attended four-year institutions, and most (77%) attended public colleges and universities.

College Completion

In 2010, more than 60% of 25- to 29-year-olds had finished at least some college education (at a two-year or four-year institution), an increase from about 25% in the early 1960s. In 2010, 32% of 25- to 29-year-olds completed at least a bachelor’s degree (up from 13% in 1962) and an additional 9% had an associate degree as their highest degree completed. More young women (36%) than men (28%) complete at least a bachelor’s degree, and young whites (39%) continue to be more likely than young blacks (19%) or Hispanics (13%) to have at least a bachelor’s degree.

College Expenses

Average stated tuition and fees have roughly tripled since 1980-81, even after accounting for inflation. In 2010-11, the typical in-state full-time undergraduate was charged $7,605 in tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities (before grant aid), an increase from $2,119 in 1980-81 (all figures adjusted to 2010 dollars). Other colleges and universities have increased tuition and fees by similar orders of magnitude. Average tuition and fees at private colleges and universities increased from $9,535 in 1980-81 to $27,293 in 2010-11.

Student Debt

A growing share of undergraduates take out student loans, and a rising share of families have outstanding student loans they are paying back. In 2007, 15% of families had outstanding student loan obligations, up from 9% in 1989. The average balance was $21,500 in 2007, up from $8,700 in 1989 (all figures in 2007 dollars). Outstanding student loan debt is now about 5% of all outstanding debt in the household sector—more than double its share a decade ago.

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