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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Young Adults and Higher Education: Barriers and Breakthroughs to Success
Thomas Brock

The Changing Landscape of Higher Education: 1965 - 2005

Before 1965, American colleges and universities were rarefied places populated mostly by white males from middle- or upper-income families. In part, the lack of diversity reflected the fact that for much of the nation's history, a college education was not needed to make a decent living. Indeed, after World War II, the difference between the average wages of high school and college graduates was small and shrinking. After 1950, however, the trend moved in the opposite direction and accelerated as the demand for highly skilled labor increased.4 In 1975, year-round workers with a bachelor's degree earned 1.5 times the annual pay of workers with only a high school diploma; by 1999, that ratio had risen to 1.8.5

Prevailing social norms and a limited federal role in higher education also served to keep higher education an exclusive domain before the 1960s. In many parts of the country, discriminatory laws and attitudes kept many blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities from pursuing a college degree. Prevailing attitudes about the role of women limited their college-going as well. Finally, before 1965, financial aid was not generally available for college students. The federal G.I. Bill had covered college costs for tens of thousands of veterans after World War II, but it, too, had "masculinized" campus life and had aided whites far more than African Americans.6

The mid-to-late 1960s marked a major turning point. Changes in federal policy, coupled with big changes in public attitudes and expectations, opened up higher education as never before. From a policy perspective, the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965 was arguably the most important change, as it extended need-based financial assistance to the general population for the first time.7 The federal role expanded in other ways, too, fueling growth on college and university campuses. Starting in 1963, for example, the federal government launched a major program for facilities construction, targeting "developing institutions" like community colleges and historically black colleges and universities.8 Federal spending on higher education increased exponentially, from $655 million in 1956 to $3.5 billion in 1966.9

During the same period, the civil rights movement influenced higher education by challenging public laws and practices that excluded blacks and other minority groups from attending some colleges and universities, particularly in the South. Early battles focused on winning admittance for individual students. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race in schools, public places, and employment and mandated equal opportunity for women. By the late 1960s, civil rights activists broadened their perspective to encompass poverty and income inequality and helped launch dozens of Great Society programs that funded education and job training programs targeted to low-income Americans.10

Demographic trends, combined with the social activism of the 1960s, also created pressure for change. As the baby boom generation reached maturity, young adults poured onto college campuses in record numbers. Colleges and universities became centers of protest, most famously against the Vietnam War, but also against all manner of social convention and custom.11 Rules governing higher education were not above the fray. Questions of who should have access—and what role colleges and universities should play in confronting and reducing inequities in the larger society—were hotly debated. The "open admissions" movement gained currency during this era, most famously with the 1970 decision by the City University of New York to allow all high school graduates to pursue college degrees regardless of academic preparation. Other institutions across the country, notably community colleges, adopted similar policies.12

Trends in Student Enrollment and Demographics
The effects of changing laws and attitudes are evident in the dramatic rise in college enrollments depicted in figure 1. Total fall enrollment increased from just over 5.9 million students in 1965 to about 17.5 million students in 2005—a nearly 300 percent increase.13 The rise was steepest through 1975 and was far greater than could be accounted for by population growth alone. To put the enrollment figures into perspective, in 1965 the number of young adults in the prime college-going years of eighteen to twenty-four was approximately 20.3 million; by 2005 that number had increased 44 percent, to about 29.2 million.14

Along with increased enrollments, the demographics of students attending colleges and universities changed. Figure 2 compares the characteristics of students by gender, race or ethnicity, and age starting in the 1970s, when the federal government first began reporting on student demographics. The top panel shows how the gender balance reversed between 1970 and 2005, from mostly male to mostly female. The second panel depicts the increase in the percentage of students from racial or ethnic minority groups, which more than doubled from 1976 to 2005. By far the largest percentage increases were among Hispanics and Asian and Pacific Islanders, though all minority groups experienced growth in college enrollment while the share of whites declined. Finally, the third panel shows an increase in the percentage of students aged twenty-five and older and a proportionate decline in those aged twenty-four and under. The U.S. Department of Education projects that the trend toward older students will continue in coming years.15

The shift in demographic characteristics hints at another significant development in the student population. The so-called traditional undergraduate—the high school graduate who enrolls full-time immediately after finishing high school, relies on parents for financial support, and either does not work during the school year or works only part-time—is now the exception rather than the rule. Only 27 percent of undergraduates met these criteria in 1999–2000. By comparison, in the same year, 28 percent of undergraduates met the Department of Education's definition of "highly nontraditional": they were likely in their twenties or older, working while going to school, and raising children (possibly as single parents), among other criteria. Some highly nontraditional students did not have a high school diploma.16

Patterns of Institutional Attendance
Government statistics show that a large majority of undergraduates enroll in four-year colleges and universities. At the same time, the "center of gravity" in higher education has gradually shifted, with community colleges playing a much more prominent role today than in the past. In 1969 (when the government adopted its current methodology for categorizing two- and four-year schools), 26 percent of all college students attended two-year institutions. By 2005, that figure had risen to 37 percent.17

The vast majority of students enroll in publicly funded colleges and universities. In 2005, private institutions accounted for about one-fourth of all undergraduates—a figure that has increased only slightly in the past decade. Nearly all of these students are enrolled in four-year institutions, though a small percentage of students is enrolled in private two-year colleges.18 The advent of online courses may be changing higher education again. Indeed, two of the five largest higher education institutions in 2005 rely principally on online instruction: the University of Phoenix, with an enrollment of more than 117,000 students, and Western International University, with an enrollment of nearly 51,000 students.19

Although the demographic composition of colleges and universities has become more diverse over the past forty years, the increased diversity is largely accounted for by nonselective institutions. Specifically, female, black, and Hispanic students are disproportionately enrolled in community colleges.20 Nontraditional students are also much more likely to be enrolled in community colleges and to participate in distance education via the Internet.21

Trends in Persistence and Completion
Government statistics indicate that student outcomes differ markedly by type of institution attended. Specifically, undergraduates who begin at four-year colleges and universities are about twice as likely to complete a postsecondary degree as undergraduates who begin at two-year institutions. The five-year completion rate for students who began at a four-year college or university—taking into account certificates, associate's degrees, or bachelor's degrees—was 60 percent in the 1995–96 academic year. For students who began at a community college, the rate of completion was 32 percent.22

Many students take longer than five years to earn a degree: some are enrolled part-time, some change their majors, some need to drop out temporarily, and some have other reasons for the delay. Measures of persistence take into account those who have earned a certificate or degree as well as those who are still enrolled in college. Eighty percent of students who began at a four-year college or university in 1995–96 persisted after five years. Among students who began at a community college, the persistence rate was 52 percent. The data also show that students attending private institutions (both four-year and two-year) persist at higher rates than their counterparts at public institutions.23

Viewed historically, rates of completion at four-year institutions have been unchanged since the federal government began collecting data during the 1970s. A recent study suggests that there has been a slight uptick in the persistence rate at public four-year colleges.24 Although that increase may seem contradictory, it likely reflects the longer time it now takes students in four-year colleges, particularly at less selective public institutions, to earn degrees.25 Historical data on students attending community college go back only to 1990, but show no significant change in persistence or completion.26

Persistence and completion rates differ significantly by race and ethnicity and by gender. At public two- and four-year institutions, Asian and Pacific Islanders have the highest persistence and completion rates of any racial or ethnic group, followed by non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic blacks. (The longitudinal studies commissioned by the government lack sufficient numbers of American Indians and Alaska Natives on which to report.) Asian and Pacific Islanders who entered public four-year institutions in 1995–96 were nearly twice as likely to earn a degree or still be in school after six years as non-Hispanic blacks who entered the same year. The story by gender is a bit more complicated. At public four-year institutions, women have slightly higher persistence and completion rates than men (a difference of about 5 percentage points); at public two-year institutions, the gender difference is reversed.27 It is important to recall that because more women than men enroll in college, many more associate's and bachelor's degrees are awarded to women—a pattern that has held true at both two- and four-year institutions since at least the late 1980s.28

Despite these patterns, neither race and ethnicity nor gender is a good predictor of who will earn a college degree, owing to large variation within these demographic groups. Research by Clifford Adelman for the Department of Education shows that the two best predictors are entering college immediately after finishing high school and taking a high school curriculum that stresses reading at grade level and math beyond basic algebra. Higher socioeconomic status is also a predictor, though only moderately so.29 Consistent with these findings, being classified as a traditional student is another strong predictor of college completion. Conversely, all of the characteristics used to define nontraditional status—delayed entry into college from high school, working full-time, single parenthood, and so on—are considered "risk factors" because they are negatively correlated with persistence.30 As noted, community colleges account for a disproportionate share of nontraditional students; they are also the institutions that raise the most concern about persistence and completion.

Summary of Trends and Key Issues
Access to higher education has been greatly expanded since the mid-1960s. More students are attending college—both in real terms and as a percentage of the population—and they are demographically more diverse. Actions taken by the federal government clearly played a major part in these trends, though larger economic, demographic, and social forces were also at play. Finally, the growth of nonselective institutions like community colleges and, more recently, online courses and programs has made it easier for people to attend college even if they lack good preparation or are working while going to school.

Despite these gains, college access remains problematic, and gaps in enrollment between certain racial and ethnic minority groups are substantial. In 2006, for example, 44 percent of whites between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four were enrolled in college, compared with 32 percent of blacks and 25 percent of Hispanics.31 Rates of college attendance for black and Hispanic males are particularly low. A recent national survey of college-qualified students who did not enroll in college underscores that college costs, availability of aid, and uncertainty about the steps needed to enroll in college remain significant deterrents.32 Inadequate preparation for college is another factor, though with the rise of nonselective institutions, it is less a barrier to access than to success once students have enrolled in college.

From a public policy standpoint, it makes little sense to promote greater college access if students are failing once they get there. Figuring out how to boost college completion is the challenge. The United States has seen no progress on this measure since the advent of statistics on it and is losing ground to other nations in the share of the adult population with college degrees.33 The costs of such failure—to students especially, but also to colleges, governments, and society at large—are extremely high. I next examine why some students don't succeed and what might be done in response.