College Enrollment Hits All-Time High

The share of 18- to 24-year-olds attending college in the United States hit an all-time high in October 2008, driven by a recession-era surge in enrollments at community colleges, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Just under 11.5 million students, or 39.6% of all young adults ages 18 to 24, were enrolled in either a two- or four-year college in October 2008 (the most recent date for which comprehensive nationwide data are available). Both figures – the absolute number as well as the share – are at their highest level ever.

Enrollments have been rising over many decades at both two- and four-year colleges, but the most recent annual spike has taken place entirely at two-year colleges.

In October 2007, some 3.1 million young adults, or 10.9% of all 18- to 24-year-olds, were enrolled in a community college.1 A year later, that figure had risen to 3.4 million students, or 11.8% of all 18- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, enrollments at four-year colleges were essentially flat from 2007 to 2008.

This new peak in college enrollment has come in the midst of a recession that has driven the national unemployment rate to its highest level in more than a quarter of a century and has had an especially harsh impact on young adults. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a smaller share of 16- to 24-year-olds were employed in September 2009 – 46.1% – than at any time since the government began collecting such data in 1948.

Read the full report College Enrollment Hits All-Time High, Fueled by Community College Surge on the Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends Web site.

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