Blog: The Educated Reporter

Higher Education Demographics at a Glance

Education Writers Association’s Higher Ed Seminar kicks off Friday, September 27. We’ll be exploring how demographic changes are impacting colleges and universities. Today’s post, a comprehensive backgrounder on this important set of issues, is from EWA’s Mikhail Zinshteyn.

Annals of College Completion

As EWA is gearing up for its annual Higher Education Seminar, held this year at Northeastern University in Boston, we’ve gone full-bore on postsecondary data.

Some of the datasets we compiled confirm prevalent views of who’s going to college and whether they’re faring better than those who passed on a higher education experience. Others were surprising, like the data on how long women have been outpacing men in degree attainment. Put together, the information we gleaned depicts a higher education landscape that is struggling to respond to the demographic changes taking hold of the broader U.S. populace. Below is a chart that visualizes the number of individuals who completed a bachelor’s degree by race. Chart 1 shows the totals while the bottom chart displays those numbers in percentages. With some data scrubbing and initial tinkering, Tableau Public allows busy scribes to illustrate otherwise drab data tables. Hover over the bars below to see specific numbers and percentages.

But while whites are far more over-represented among students earning degrees, college enrollment tells a different story. In 1976 roughly 85 percent of all students in colleges and universities were white, but that figure dropped to less than two-thirds in 2011, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Chart 2 below captures the enrollment figures the federal government collected from two- and four-year universities. Click around the bars for more information about a given year. Broadly, the data visualized below show that the black share of total enrollment between 1976 and 2011 nearly doubled; the Hispanic share more than quadrupled. Although more underserved minorities are getting through the campus door, far fewer are donning caps and gowns as shown in Chart 1 above. However, recent research has found that students who attended some college are still likely to earn more than those who stopped their education after earning high school diplomas. In recent years researchers have focused on paring the number of college dropouts to increase the workforce’s share of college-degree holders.

While news reports are rife with hard data depicting a wage gap that favors men over women, by any measure of college completion it’s women who have the leg up. By the early 1980s, women edged out men in degrees earned. The trend began with associate’s degrees in 1977, and by 1986 more women were earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men. Women began attaining more doctorate degrees than men in 2006. The line graphs below show the year at which females surpassed males in degree attainment— it helps illustrate a trend that began more than three decades ago.

Source: NCES data on college completion by gender (associate's degree)Graph designed by author

Source: NCES data on college completion by gender (bachelor's degree)Graph designed by author

The chart below is interactive and uses Education Department data —see attainment figures along gender lines at the bachelor’s level beginning with the Reconstruction era. The chart also shows total degrees earned across all degree types (two- and four-year institutions, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorates). The bars expand in length as you scroll down. 

Of course, race and gender aren’t the only demographic characteristics worth exploring along the postsecondary waterfront. Household income is closely correlated with college completion. If college completion is the ticket to better wages (presently, workers with bachelor’s degrees earn about 70 percent more than those with a high school degree), the well-off have a huge advantage over their low-income peers. Recent reports show the poor are completing college at much lower numbers than their well-off peers, and that gap is expanding. A 2012 study, for example, found that a tenth of children from households in the lowest-income quartile and born in the 1980s completed college. Nearly half of children born in the same period who came from the top-income quartile completed college. And the gap in college completion between the poor and rich has widened compared to children born in the 1960s. The chart below shows the enrollment (entrance) and completion percentages of children born in the early 1960s and those born in early 1980s. And as higher wages are increasingly dependent on a postsecondary degree, the large chunk of the population that’s not attending a college or university is losing out on a greater share of wealth. This week the Pew Research Center put together a graphic that shows how households with at least one worker with a bachelor’s degree have increased their share of the total wages Americans earn.

In 1991 one-fifth of the U.S. population was college- educated and earned 37 percent of all national wages. In 2012, college-educated households brought in one half of all wages—even though this group represents a third of the U.S. population. In fact, as news outlets document the flat wage growth among U.S. households since 1990, those with at least a bachelor’s degree have experienced wage increases— further exasperating the gulf in wealth between those fortunate to earn a degree and those who haven’t. 

So how are researchers and policymakers responding to these trends that delineate college completion along racial, gender and socioeconomic status? We haven’t even touched the area of adult learners or veterans of the U.S. armed services who’ve decided to acquire a postsecondary degree. We won’t get all the answers, but the Higher Education Seminar at Boston will get us started with more data and insight from some of the nation’s leading experts on higher education. Stay tuned for our event wrap ups, videos and podcasts

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