How Many College Students Are in the U.S.?

How Many College Students Are in the U.S.?
portrait of Hannah Muniz
By Hannah Muniz

Published on March 22, 2021

Share on Social

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 19.7 million students were enrolled at U.S. colleges in fall 2020.

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. In the past year, however, college enrollment has fallen sharply due to challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, 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 2020, 19.7 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 2018 is the most recent year NCES released data on states' enrollment numbers.

U.S. College Student Population by State, 2018

State

Source: NCES

The states with the most college students are California, Texas, New York, and Florida, with each serving more than 1 million students. California is the only state to serve over 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 serves fewer than 50,000 students. Unsurprisingly, these states also boast 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 state population is enrolled in college — would win the award for the largest concentration of students. This means that you're more likely to run into a college student in New Hampshire than 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
  • 16.7 million undergraduate students
  • 3.1 million graduate students
Enrollment Status
  • 12.0 million full-time students
  • 7.7 million part-time students
School Type
  • 14.6 million students at public institutions
  • 5.1 million students at private institutions

Source: NCES

As this data shows, the majority of college students in the U.S. 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 looking 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 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 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 52% 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.

Unfortunately, Hispanic students’ gains have stalled due to COVID-19, with the group reporting a 5.4% dip in enrollment in fall 2020.

Since 2000, college enrollment rates for 18-to-24-year-olds have measurably increased among Black and Hispanic students, with the latter making up the fastest-growing population of postsecondary students. Unfortunately, Hispanic students' gains have stalled due to COVID-19, with the group reporting a 5.4% dip in enrollment in fall 2020. Fewer Hispanic students are also applying for financial aid, which further impacts their ability to attend college.

International students do not report race/ethnicity and are instead classified as "nonresident aliens." For five years in a row, the international college student population in the U.S. exceeded 1 million, with most students coming from China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a noticeable dip in international student enrollment, from 1.1 million in fall 2019 to around 1 million in 2020. One survey found that international enrollment at U.S. colleges fell by as much as 16% compared to the previous fall. Meanwhile, the number of new international students dropped a staggering 43%.

Colleges Observe Huge Enrollment Drops Amid Pandemic

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 2020. 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, the number of undergraduates fell 8%, most likely as a consequence of the 2007-09 Great Recession and rising tuition costs.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented drops in enrollment around the country and among all student groups. Experts suspected that the annual summer melt — when those who planned to go to college end up not attending — would wind up hitting colleges harder due to the ongoing public health crisis. And they weren't wrong.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented drops in enrollment around the country and among all student groups.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment fell 4.4% in the fall, and 4.5% this spring compared to last spring. Colleges also reported a 13% decline in first-year enrollment in fall 2020.

Student groups most impacted by the pandemic include international students, Native American students, and Black students, all of which experienced an enrollment decline of at least 7%.

Nobody can predict how long these enrollment drops will last, but most experts appear to agree that the rise in COVID-19 vaccinations and a swift return to normal campus operations should bolster attendance rates.


Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Feeling first-day-of-college jitters? Learn what to expect and how to prepare for the first day of class. Looking for a good school in the Southwest? Check out our list of the top 10 online colleges in the southwestern United States. Students can make college life easier by bringing 10 documents that are essential for study, work, and other aspects of student life.