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In 2018, some 19.6 million students were enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions. In addition to the students enrolled in degree-granting institutions, about 363,000 students attended non-degree-granting Title IV-eligible postsecondary institutions in fall 2018.

Fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased 32 percent between 1998 and 2008. In 2018, fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions (19.6 million) was 3 percent higher than in 2008 (19.1 million). However, during this period, enrollment reached a peak in 2010 (21.0 million or 10 percent higher than in 2008), followed by a decrease of 7 percent between 2010 and 2018.

Similar patterns held for different groups of students, including by sex and enrollment status. For example, postsecondary enrollment was 3 percent higher in 2018 than in 2008 for both male and female students. For each, this overall increase reflects annual increases during the early part of the period followed by decreases during the most recent part of the period (a decrease of 7 percent for males and 6 percent for females from 2010 to 2018).

Such trends in overall enrollment are shaped both by the size of the college-age population and by rates of enrollment. While the traditional college-age population (18- to 24-year-olds) was about 1 percent higher in 2018 (30.5 million) than in 2008 (30.2 million), the percentage of this age group who enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions (41 percent) was not measurably different from the percentage in 2008.

Although 18- to 24-year-olds are our best approximation of the college-age population, not all college students are part of this age group and trends in enrollment differ by age. The number of students under age 25 enrolled in degree-granting institutions was 6 percent higher in 2018 than in 2008, while the number of students age 25 and over decreased 2 percent. A similar pattern is expected to continue in the coming years. NCES projects that enrollment for students under age 25 will increase 5 percent between 2018 and 2029, while the enrollment of students age 25 and over will be 1 percent lower in 2029 than in 2018.

Enrollment trends have differed at the undergraduate and postbaccalaureate levels. Undergraduate enrollment increased 47 percent between fall 1970 and fall 1983, when it reached 10.8 million. Undergraduate enrollment dipped to 10.6 million in 1984 and 1985 but then increased each year from 1985 to 1992, rising 18 percent before stabilizing between 1992 and 1998. Undergraduate enrollment increased every year between 1998 and 2008. Undergraduate enrollment was 2 percent higher in 2018 (16.6 million) than in 2008 (16.3 million).

Postbaccalaureate enrollment increased 34 percent between 1970 and 1984, with most of this increase occurring in the early and mid-1970s. Postbaccalaureate enrollment increased between 1985 and 2018, rising a total of 84 percent. During the last decade of this period, between 2008 and 2018, postbaccalaureate enrollment rose 11 percent, from 2.7 million to 3.0 million.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Digest of Education Statistics, 2019 (NCES 2021-009), Chapter 3.

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