How Many College Students Are in the U.S.?
- There are around 20 million college students in the U.S., and campus diversity is increasing.
- Female students have outnumbered male students in higher education for over 40 years.
- The economic recession and pandemic could alter higher education enrollment trends.
For many, college evokes images of sprawling campuses with masses of students scurrying across quads and courtyards. And this image isn't wholly inaccurate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a whopping 19.9 million students were enrolled at U.S. colleges in fall 2019.
Over the years, the number of college students in the U.S. has grown significantly. These days, most high school graduates choose to enroll in college. In its 2020 Condition of Education report, NCES found that 69% of 2018 high school graduates immediately attended college.
Clearly, higher education remains a popular path for high school graduates and young adults. Below, we break down exactly how many college students are in the U.S. based on categories like student status, institution type, sex, and race/ethnicity.
Breakdown of the Number of U.S. College Students
In fall 2019, 19.9 million students were enrolled at U.S. postsecondary institutions. This number comprises a wide variety of students, such as undergraduate and graduate students, as well as full-time and part-time students.
Number of College Students by State
The following map depicts the number of college students in each U.S. state. Note that 2017 was the last year NCES released data on states' enrollment numbers; as such, the total number of students at this time was closer to 19.8 million as opposed to today's 19.9 million.
U.S. College Student Population by State, 2017
The states with the most college students are California, Texas, New York, and Florida, with each containing more than 1 million students. California is the only state to house more than 2 million students.
This data makes sense when we consider that these four states boast the highest total populations. They're also home to popular public university systems, such as the University of California, the California State University, and the University of Texas.
On the opposite end, the states with the fewest college students include Alaska, Wyoming, and Vermont. Each of these jurisdictions contains fewer than 50,000 students. Unsurprisingly, these states also possess the smallest total populations.
But what happens when you measure a state's number of college students as a proportion of its total population? In this case, New Hampshire — where 11% of the population is enrolled in college — would win the award for the largest concentration of students. This means that within New Hampshire, you're more likely to run into a college student than you are in any other state.
Number of College Students by Category
The following data breaks down the total number of college students into three categories.
- Academic Level
- 16.9 million undergraduate students
- 3.0 million graduate students
- Enrollment Status
- 12.1 million full-time students
- 7.8 million part-time students
- School Type
- 14.7 million students at public institutions
- 5.2 million students at private institutions
As this data shows, the vast majority of students are undergraduates; only about 15% of postsecondary students are pursuing a graduate degree.
In terms of enrollment status, about three-fifths of students attend school on a full-time basis. In previous decades, the numbers of full-time and part-time college students were more or less equal, but this gap has since widened, with more students opting for full-time study.
Finally, close to 75% of college students in the U.S. attend public institutions. This trend is likely due in part to the fact that public colleges and universities tend to offer less expensive tuition rates to in-state applicants, making them an appealing option for those hoping to save money and avoid taking on as much debt.
Number of College Students by Sex
For over 40 years now, female college students have consistently outnumbered male students. Here's a look at the most recent U.S. college enrollment numbers by sex.
Higher education originated as a male-only sphere, but as gender roles shifted and feminists advocated for gender equality, women's enrollment at colleges grew rapidly. By 1979, female college students outnumbered male students for the first time in U.S. history. Today, the gap between male and female students remains significant.
Many theories attempt to explain why so many men are avoiding college. Whereas some experts attribute this enrollment trend to biologically based developmental differences, others claim that men are more likely to abandon the traditional college route in favor of vocational training.
Unfortunately, higher college enrollment numbers don't necessarily ensure higher pay for women. According to the Social Security Administration, women with bachelor's degrees make roughly the same lifetime earnings as men with high school diplomas, and they make about $1 million less than men with bachelor's degrees.
Number of College Students by Race/Ethnicity
Next, let's look at the number of college students in the U.S. in terms of race/ethnicity. It's important to compare these percentages with the most recent U.S. census data to see how accurately each racial/ethnic group is represented in higher education.
This enrollment data generally reflects the current demographics of the U.S. population at large. One major difference, however, is that white, non-Hispanic people — who make up 60% of the country's total population — account for a markedly lower 53% of college students.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports increasing diversity in classrooms. For example, in 2007, white, non-Hispanic students made up about two-thirds of all college students. However, in 2017, that number fell below 55%. Currently, about half of the nation's college students identify as non-white and/or Hispanic.
Since 2000, college enrollment rates for 18-to-24-year-olds have measurably increased for black and Hispanic students, with the latter making up the fastest-growing population of postsecondary students.
International students do not report race/ethnicity and are instead classified as "nonresident aliens." For each of the past five years, the international college student population in the U.S. has exceeded 1 million, with most students coming from China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.
COVID-19 Could Change Enrollment Projections
Over the past few decades, the total number of college students in the U.S. has increased significantly, going from just 13.8 million in 1990 to nearly 20 million in 2019. Additionally, over the past 20 years, the total undergraduate enrollment grew 26%.
However, enrollment has been inconsistent. Fall 2010 marked the peak in U.S. enrollment, when the total number of college students hit a record-breaking 21 million. Between 2010 and 2018, though, the number of undergraduates fell 8%, most likely as a consequence of the 2007-09 Great Recession and rising tuition costs.
Even with these recent dips in enrollment, the Department of Education projects slight growth between 2018 and 2029 — specifically a 2% increase in the number of undergraduates and a 1% increase in the total number of college students.
With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, these projections could change dramatically. Campus closures and the nationwide shift to emergency remote learning suggest that college enrollment could decline even further.
A recent survey conducted by higher education consulting firm Simpson Scarborough found that nearly 20% of high school seniors who were planning to go to college may not attend this fall. For colleges, this could lead to huge drops in both enrollment and revenue.