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Digest of Education Statistics: 2008
Digest of Education Statistics: 2008

NCES 2009-020
March 2009

Chapter 3: Postsecondary Education

Postsecondary education includes an array of diverse educational experiences offered by American colleges and universities, and technical and vocational institutions. For example, a community college may offer vocational training or the first 2 years of training at the college level. A university typically offers a full undergraduate course of study leading to a bachelor's degree, as well as first-professional and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees. Vocational and technical institutions offer training programs that are designed to prepare students for specific careers. Community groups, religious organizations, libraries, and businesses provide other types of educational opportunities for adults.

This chapter provides an overview of the latest statistics on postsecondary education, which includes academic, vocational, and continuing professional education programs after high school. However, to maintain comparability over time, most of the data in the Digest are for degree-granting institutions, which are defined as postsecondary institutions that grant an associate's or higher degree and whose students are eligible to participate in the Title IV federal financial aid programs.1 Degree-granting institutions include almost all 2- and 4-year colleges and universities; they exclude institutions offering only vocational programs of less than 2 years' duration and continuing education programs. The degree-granting institution classification is very similar to the higher education institution classification that the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) used prior to 1996–97.2 This chapter highlights historical data that enable the reader to observe long-range trends in college education in America.

Other chapters provide related information on postsecondary education. Data on price indexes and on the number of degrees held by the general population are shown in chapter 1. Chapter 4 contains tabulations on federal funding for postsecondary education. Information on employment outcomes for college graduates is shown in chapter 5. Chapter 7 contains data on college libraries and use of computers by young adults. Further information on survey methodologies is presented in Appendix A: Guide to Sources and in the publications cited in the table source notes.


Enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 14 percent between 1987 and 1997 (table 188 and figure 11). Between 1997 and 2007, enrollment increased at a faster rate (26 percent), from 14.5 million to 18.2 million. Much of the growth between 1997 and 2007 was in full-time enrollment; the number of full-time students rose 34 percent, while the number of part-time students rose 15 percent. During the same time period, the number of females rose 29 percent, compared to an increase of 22 percent in the number of males. Enrollment increases can be affected both by population growth and by rising rates of enrollment. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds increased from 25.5 million to 29.5 million, an increase of 16 percent (table 15), and the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college remained relatively stable (37 percent in 1997 and 39 percent in 2007) (table 204). In addition to the enrollment in accredited 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities, about 447,000 students attended non-degree-granting, Title IV eligible, postsecondary institutions in fall 2006 (table 186).

The number of young students has been growing more rapidly than the number of older students, but this pattern is expected to shift (table 190 and figure 13). Between 1995 and 2006, the enrollment of students under age 25 increased by 33 percent. Enrollment of people 25 and over rose by 13 percent during the same period. From 2006 to 2017, NCES projects a rise of 10 percent in enrollments of people under 25, and a rise of 19 percent in enrollments of people 25 and over.

Enrollment trends have differed at the undergraduate, graduate, and first-professional levels. Undergraduate enrollment generally increased during the 1970s, but dipped from 10.8 million to 10.6 million between 1983 and 1985 (table 205). From 1985 to 1992, undergraduate enrollment increased each year, rising 18 percent before declining 2 percent and stabilizing between 1993 and 1996. Undergraduate enrollment rose 25 percent between 1997 and 2007. Graduate enrollment had been steady at about 1.3 million in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but rose about 67 percent between 1985 and 2007 (table 206). After rising 60 percent between 1970 and 1980, enrollment in first-professional programs stabilized in the 1980s (table 207). First-professional enrollment began rising again in the 1990s and showed an increase of 18 percent between 1997 and 2007.

Since 1984, the number of females in graduate schools has exceeded the number of males (table 206). Between 1997 and 2007, the number of male full-time graduate students increased by 32 percent, compared to a 63 percent increase for female graduate students. Among part-time graduate students, the number of males increased by 10 percent and the number of females increased by 23 percent.

The percentage of American college students who are minorities has been increasing. In 1976, 15 percent were minorities, compared with 32 percent in 2007 (table 226). Much of the change from 1976 to 2007 can be attributed to rising numbers of Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander students. During that time period, the percentage of Asian or Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 7 percent and the Hispanic percentage rose from 4 percent to 11 percent. The percentage of Black students was 9 percent at the beginning of the time period and it fluctuated during the early part of the period before rising to 13 percent in 2007. Nonresident aliens for whom race/ethnicity is not reported made up 3 percent of the total enrollment in 2007.

Despite the sizable numbers of small degree-granting colleges, most students attend the larger colleges and universities. In fall 2006, 41 percent of institutions had fewer than 1,000 students; however, these campuses enrolled 4 percent of college students (table 234). While 12 percent of the campuses enrolled 10,000 or more students, they accounted for 55 percent of total college enrollment.

In 2006, the five colleges with the highest enrollment were University of Phoenix Online Campus, with 165,373 students; Ohio State University, with 51,818 students; Miami-Dade College, with 51,329 students; Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus, with 51,234 students; and the University of Florida, with 50,912 students (table 236).

Faculty, Staff, and Salaries

Approximately 3.6 million people were employed in colleges and universities in the fall of 2007, including 2.6 million professional and 0.9 million nonprofessional staff (table 245). In the fall of 2007, there were 1.4 million faculty members in degree-granting institutions, including 0.7 million full-time and 0.7 million part-time faculty. The proportion of executive, administrative, and managerial staff was 6 percent in 2007, compared to 5 percent in 1976 (table 244). The proportion of other non-teaching professional staff rose from 10 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2007, while the proportion of nonprofessional staff (including technical and paraprofessional, clerical and secretarial, skilled crafts, and service and maintenance staff) declined from 42 percent to 26 percent. The full-time-equivalent (FTE) student/FTE staff ratio at colleges and universities was lower in 2007 (5.0) than in 1976 (5.4). The FTE student/FTE faculty ratio declined from 16.6 in 1976 to 14.9 in 2007.

Colleges differ in their practices of employing part-time and full-time staff. In fall 2007, 48 percent of the employees at public 2-year colleges were employed full time, compared with 68 percent at public 4-year colleges and universities, 67 percent at private 4-year colleges and universities, and 66 percent at private 2- year colleges (table 245). A higher percentage of the faculty at public 4-year colleges and universities were employed full time (68 percent) than at private 4-year colleges and universities (48 percent), private 2-year colleges (46 percent), or public 2-year colleges (31 percent). In general, the number of full-time staff has been growing at a slower rate than the number of part-time staff (table 243). Between 1997 and 2007, the number of fulltime staff increased by 25 percent compared to an increase of 39 percent in the number of part-time staff. Most of the increase in the part-time staff was due to the increase in the number of parttime faculty (59 percent) and instruction and research assistants (48 percent) during this time period.

In fall 2007, minorities made up 17 percent of U.S. faculty (based on a total faculty count excluding persons whose race/ ethnicity was unknown) (table 246). Seven percent of the faculty were Black, 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, 4 percent were Hispanic, and 1 percent were American Indian/ Alaska Native. About four-fifths of the faculty were White, with 43 percent being White males and 36 percent being White females. Minorities made up about 18 percent of executive, administrative, and managerial staff in 2007 and about 33 percent of nonprofessional staff. The proportions of minority staff at public 4-year colleges (23 percent), private 4-year colleges (22 percent), and public 2-year colleges (22 percent) were similar, with the proportion at private 2-year colleges (27 percent) being slightly higher.

On average, full-time instructional faculty and staff spent 58 percent of their time teaching in 2003 (table 250). Research and scholarship accounted for 20 percent of their time, and 22 percent was spent on other activities (administration, professional growth, etc.).

Faculty salaries generally lost purchasing power from 1972–73 to 1980–81, when average salaries for faculty on 9- month contracts declined 17 percent after adjustment for inflation (table 257). During the 1980s, average salaries rose and recouped most of the losses. Between 1997–98 and 2007–08, there was a further increase in average faculty salaries, resulting in an average of about 4 percent higher than the 1972–73 average, after adjustment for inflation. The average salary in current dollars for males in 2007–08 ($76,935) was higher than the average for females ($63,347). Between 1997–98 and 2007–08, the average salary for males increased by 5 percent and the average salary for females increased by 6 percent, after adjustment for inflation.

The percentage of faculty with tenure has declined in recent years. About 50 percent of full-time instructional faculty had tenure in 2005–06, compared with 56 percent in 1993–94 (table 264). A difference existed between the percentage of males and females with tenure. Fifty-five percent of males compared to 41 percent of females had tenure in 2005–06. About 52 percent of the instructional faculty at public institutions had tenure, compared to 45 percent of faculty at private not-for-profit institutions.


During the 2007–08 academic year, 4,352 accredited institutions offered degrees at the associate's degree level or above (table 266). These included 2,675 4-year institutions and 1,677 2-year institutions. Institutions awarding various degrees in 2006–07 numbered 2,725 for associate's degrees, 2,256 for bachelor's degrees, 1,695 for master's degrees, and 648 for doctor's degrees (table 278).

Growing numbers of people are completing college degrees. Between 1996–97 and 2006–07, the number of associate's, bachelor's, master's, first-professional, and doctor's degrees rose (table 268). During this period, associate's degrees increased 27 percent, bachelor's degrees increased 30 percent, master's degrees increased 44 percent, first-professional degrees increased 14 percent, and doctor's degrees increased 32 percent. Since the mid-1980s, more females than males have earned associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees. In 2006–07, the number of females earning doctor's degrees exceeded the number of males. Also, the number of females receiving all types of degrees has increased at a faster rate than the number for males. Between 1996–97 and 2006–07, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to males increased by 25 percent, while the number awarded to females increased by 34 percent. The number of males earning doctor's degrees was about 11 percent higher in 2006–07 than in 1996–97, while the number of females earning doctor's degrees rose by 62 percent.

Of the 1,524,000 bachelor's degrees conferred in 2006–07, the largest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of business (328,000), social sciences and history (164,000), education (106,000), and health sciences (102,000) (table 271). At the master's degree level, the largest numbers of degrees were in the fields of education (177,000) and business (150,000) (table 272). The fields with the largest number of degrees at the doctor's degree level were health professions and related clinical sciences (8,400), education (8,300), engineering (8,100), biological and biomedical sciences (6,400), psychology (5,200), and physical sciences (4,800) (table 273).

In recent years, the numbers of bachelor's degrees conferred have followed patterns that differed significantly by field of study. While the number of degrees increased 30 percent overall between 1996–97 and 2006–07, there was substantial variation among the different fields of study, as well as shifts in the patterns of change during this time period (table 271). The number of bachelor's degrees conferred in the combined fields of engineering and engineering technologies declined 1 percent between 1996–97 and 2001–02, but then rose 10 percent between 2001–02 and 2006–07 (table 271 and figure 15). The number of engineering and engineering technologies degrees conferred in 2006–07 was about 8 percent higher than the number conferred in 1996–97. The number of degrees in the health professions declined by 17 percent between 1996–97 and 2001–02, but then rose 40 percent between 2001–02 and 2006–07. Similarly, the number of degrees in biological sciences decreased 7 percent between 1996–97 and 2001–02, but then increased 26 percent between 2001–02 and 2006–07; and the number in the physical sciences declined by 9 percent between 1996–97 and 2001–02, but increased 18 percent between 2001–02 and 2006–07. Some technical fields experienced a contrasting pattern. After an increase of 98 percent between 1996–97 and 2001–02, the number of degrees in computer and information sciences decreased 16 percent between 2001–02 and 2006–07. Other fields with sizable numbers of degrees (over 5,000) that showed increases of over 30 percent between 2001–02 and 2006–07 included security and protective services (54 percent); parks, recreation, and leisure studies (45 percent); and transportation and materials moving (41 percent).

Fifty-eight percent of the students who enrolled in a 4-year college or university as first-time freshmen in 1995–96 had completed a bachelor's degree by 2001 (table 329). About 7 percent of students had completed a certificate or associate's degree, 14 percent were still enrolled without having received a degree, and 21 percent were no longer working toward a bachelor's degree.


For the 2007–08 academic year, annual prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $11,164 at public institutions and $28,846 at private institutions (table 331). Between 1997–98 and 2007–08, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose by 30 percent, and prices at private institutions rose by 23 percent, after adjustment for inflation.

In 2005–06, average total expenditures per full-timeequivalent (FTE) student at public degree-granting colleges were $24,126 (table 362). This total reflects an increase of about 2 percent between 2003–04 and 2005–06, after adjustment for inflation. In 2005–06, public 4-year colleges had average total expenditures per FTE student of $32,483, compared to $11,053 at public 2-year colleges. At private not-forprofit colleges, total expenditures per FTE student rose 15 percent between 1996–97 and 2005–06, after adjustment for inflation (table 364). In 2005–06, total expenditures per FTE student at private not-for-profit colleges were $40,156, with an average of $40,394 at 4-year colleges and $18,240 at 2- year colleges. The expenditures per FTE student at for-profit institutions were $11,336 in 2005–06, which was about 3 percent lower than in 1998–99, after adjustment for inflation (table 366). The difference between average expenditures per FTE student at for-profit 4-year colleges ($10,897) and forprofit 2-year colleges ($12,558) was relatively small compared to the differences at 2-year versus 4-year public and private not-for-profit colleges.

As of June 30, 2007, the market value of the endowment funds of the 120 colleges and universities with the largest endowment amounts was $322 billion, reflecting an increase of 18 percent compared to 2006, after adjustment for inflation (tables 31 and 359). The five colleges with the largest endowments in 2007 were Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, Princeton University, and University of Texas System.


1 Title IV programs, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Education, provide financial aid to postsecondary students.
2 Included among degree-granting institutions are some institutions (primarily 2-year colleges) that were not previously designated as higher education institutions. Excluded from degree-granting institutions are a few institutions that were previously designated as higher education institutions even though they did not award an associate's or higher degree. Institutions of higher education were accredited by an agency or association that was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, or recognized directly by the Secretary of Education. Institutions of higher education offered courses that led to an associate's or higher degree, or were accepted for credit towards a degree.