October 29, 2009

College Enrollment Hits All-Time High, Fueled by Community College Surge

III. The Expanding Base of Young High School Completers

The record share of 18- to 24-year-olds attending college in 2008 comes at a time when a record proportion of young adults have completed high school, either by regular high school graduation or passing an equivalency test. According to Census Bureau figures, in October 2008, almost 85% of 18- to 24-year-olds had completed high school, an all-time high for this basic measure of educational attainment (Figure 2) and up from 75.5% in 1967. Thus, more youths than ever before were eligible to attend college (most college students have finished high school). Another factor that could account for the greater share of 18- to 24-year-olds attending college could be an increase in the rate of college attendance among those who have finished high school. However, this did not occur in October 2008. The measured college enrollment rate of 18- to 24-year-old high school completers was 46.7% in 2008, slightly below the peak attained for this measure in 2005 (46.9%). Effectively, a record high proportion of youths are in college because the base of yo
ung high school completers is at an all-time high, not because college enrollment among high school-educated youth has increased.

Census figures also indicate that a record low share6 of 18- to 24-year-olds were high school dropouts in 2008 (Figure 2). In October 2008, 9.3% of 18- to 24-year-olds were high school dropouts — less than half the 19.8% of 18- to 24-year-olds who were high school dropouts in 1967.7

  1. The status high school dropout rate refers to the percent of the population that has not completed high school and is not enrolled in school. As many analysts have noted, some high school dropouts were never enrolled in school in the United States and left school in their country of origin before migrating to the United States.
  2. Again, these rates refer to 18- to 24-year-olds in the civilian non-institutional population. Thus, they might overstate the decline in the fraction of youths who are high school dropouts. A larger share of 18- to 24-year-olds were institutionalized in 2008 than 1967, and high school dropouts are much more likely to be institutionalized than other youth. Nonetheless, high school dropout rates calculated using all youths, not just those in the civilian non-institutionalized population, still show a marked decline in dropout status over the past 40 years (Fry, 2009).