Skip Navigation
Digest of Education Statistics: 2009
Digest of Education Statistics: 2009

NCES 2010-013
April 2010

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, career and technical, 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 career and technical 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 11 percent between 1988 and 1998 (table 189 and figure 11). Between 1998 and 2008, enrollment increased at a faster rate (32 percent), from 14.5 million to 19.1 million. Much of the growth between 1998 and 2008 was in full-time enrollment; the number of full-time students rose 37 percent, while the number of part-time students rose 24 percent. During the same time period, the number of females rose 34 percent, while the number of males rose 29 percent. Enrollment increases can be affected both by population growth and by rising rates of enrollment. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of 18-to 24-year-olds increased from 26.1 million to 29.8 million, an increase of 14 percent (table 15), and the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college rose from 37 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2008 (table 204). In addition to enrollment in accredited 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities, about 423,000 students attended non-degree-granting, Title IV eligible, postsecondary institutions in fall 2007 (table 187).

The number of young students has been growing more rapidly than the number of older students, but this pattern is expected to shift (table 191 and figure 13). Between 1995 and 2007, the enrollment of students under age 25 increased by 38 percent. Enrollment of people 25 and over rose 14 percent during the same period. From 2007 to 2018, NCES projects a rise of 9 percent in enrollments of people under 25, and a rise of 20 percent in enrollments of people 25 and over.

Enrollment trends have differed at the undergraduate and postbaccalaureate levels (which include graduate and first-professional programs). 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 stabilizing between 1992 and 1998. Undergraduate enrollment rose 32 percent between 1998 and 2008. Postbaccalaureate enrollment had been steady at about 1.6 million in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but rose about 66 percent between 1985 and 2008 (table 206).

Since 1988, the number of females in postbaccalaureate programs has exceeded the number of males (table 206). Between 1998 and 2008, the number of male full-time postbaccalaureate students increased by 30 percent, compared with a 61 percent increase in the number of females. Among part-time postbaccalaureate students, the number of males increased by 11 percent and the number of females increased by 24 percent.

The percentage of American college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black has been increasing (table 226). Much of the change in the racial/ethnic distribution of students from 1976 to 2008 can be attributed to rising numbers of students in these racial/ethnic groups. During that time period, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 3 percent to 12 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 7 percent, and the percentage of Black students rose from 9 percent to 14 percent. Nonresident aliens, for whom race/ethnicity is not reported, made up 3 percent of the total enrollment in 2008.

Despite the sizable numbers of small degree-granting colleges, most students attend larger colleges and universities. In fall 2007, some 41 percent of institutions had fewer than 1,000 students; however, these campuses enrolled 4 percent of all college students (table 234). While 12 percent of the campuses enrolled 10,000 or more students, they accounted for 56 percent of total college enrollment.

In 2007, the five postsecondary institutions with the highest enrollment were University of Phoenix Online Campus, with 224,880 students; Miami-Dade College, with 54,094 students; Ohio State University, with 52,568 students; University of Florida, with 51,725 students; and Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus, with 51,481 students (table 235).

Faculty, Staff, and Salaries

Approximately 3.6 million people were employed in colleges and universities in fall 2007, including 2.6 million professional and 0.9 million nonprofessional staff (table 245). In fall 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 and universities differ in their practices of employing part-time and full-time staff. In fall 2007, some 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 full-time 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 part-time faculty (59 percent) and graduate assistants (48 percent) during this time period.

In fall 2007, some 7 percent of college and university faculty were Black (based on a faculty count that excludes persons whose race/ethnicity was unknown), 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, 4 percent were Hispanic, and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native (table 246). About 80 percent of all faculty were White; 43 percent were White males and 36 percent were White females. Staff who were Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native made up about 18 percent of executive, administrative, and managerial staff in 2007 and about 33 percent of nonprofessional staff. The proportion of total staff made up of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and American Indians/Alaska Natives was similar at public 4-year colleges (23 percent), private 4-year colleges (22 percent), and public 2-year colleges (22 percent), but the proportion at private 2-year colleges (27 percent) was slightly higher.

On average, full-time instructional faculty and staff spent 58 percent of their time teaching in 2003 (table 251). 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 in the period from 1970–71 to 1980–81, during which average salaries for faculty on 9-month contracts declined by 16 percent after adjustment for inflation (table 257). During the 1980s, average salaries rose and recouped most of the losses. Between 1998–99 and 2008–09, there was a further increase in average faculty salaries, resulting in an average salary in 2008–09 that was about 7 percent higher than the average salary in 1970–71, after adjustment for inflation. The average salary in current dollars for males in 2008–09 ($79,706) was higher than the average salary for females ($65,638). Between 1998–99 and 2008–09, 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 49 percent of full-time instructional faculty had tenure in 2007–08, compared with 56 percent in 1993–94 (table 264). A difference was observed between males and females in the percentage of faculty with tenure. Fifty-five percent of males had tenure in 2007–08, compared with 40 percent of females. About 51 percent of the instructional faculty at public and private for-profit institutions had tenure, compared with 45 percent of faculty at private not-for-profit institutions.


During the 2008–09 academic year, 4,409 accredited institutions offered degrees at the associate's degree level or above (table 266). These included 1,676 public institutions, 1,629 private not-for-profit institutions, and 1,104 private for-profit institutions. Of the 4,409 institutions, 2,719 awarded degrees at the bachelor’s or higher level, and 1,690 offered associate’s degrees as their highest award. Institutions awarding various degrees in 2007–08 numbered 2,768 for associate's degrees, 2,301 for bachelor's degrees, 1,736 for master's degrees, and 693 for doctor's degrees (table 278).

Growing numbers of people are completing college degrees. Between 1997–98 and 2007–08, the number of associate's, bachelor's, master's, first-professional, and doctor's degrees that were conferred rose (table 268). During this period, associate's degrees increased by 34 percent, bachelor's degrees increased by 32 percent, master's degrees increased by 45 percent, first-professional degrees increased by 16 percent, and doctor's degrees increased by 38 percent. Since the mid-1980s, more females than males have earned associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees. In 2006–07 and 2007–08, the number of females earning doctor's degrees exceeded the number of males. Also, the number of females receiving degrees has increased at a faster rate than the number of males. Between 1997–98 and 2007–08, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to males increased by 28 percent, while the number awarded to females increased by 35 percent. The number of males earning doctor's degrees rose 17 percent between 1997–98 and 2007–08, while the number of females earning doctor's degrees rose 68 percent. In addition to degrees awarded at the associate’s and higher levels, 750,000 certificates were awarded by postsecondary institutions participating in federal Title IV financial aid programs (table 281).

Of the 1,563,000 bachelor's degrees conferred in 2007–08, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of business (335,000); social sciences and history (167,000); health sciences (111,000); and education (103,000) (table 271). At the master's degree level, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of education (176,000) and business (156,000) (table 272). At the doctor's degree level, the greatest number of degrees were conferred in the fields of health professions and related clinical sciences (9,900); education (8,500); engineering (8,100); biological and biomedical sciences (6,900); psychology (5,300); 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 conferred increased by 32 percent overall between 1997–98 and 2007–08, 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 was 4 percent higher in 2002–03 than in 1997–98 and rose 8 percent between 2002–03 and 2007–08 (table 271 and figure 15). The number of engineering and engineering technologies degrees conferred in 2007–08 was about 12 percent higher than the number conferred in 1997–98. The number of degrees conferred in the health professions declined by 18 percent between 1997–98 and 2002–03, but then rose 56 percent between 2002–03 and 2007–08. Similarly, the number of degrees conferred in biological sciences decreased by 8 percent between 1997–98 and 2002–03, but then increased by 30 percent between 2002–03 and 2007–08; and the number conferred in the physical sciences declined by 7 percent between 1997–98 and 2002–03 but increased by 22 percent between 2002–03 and 2007–08. Some technical fields experienced a contrasting pattern. After an increase of 106 percent between 1997–98 and 2002–03, the number of degrees conferred in computer and information sciences decreased by 33 percent between 2002–03 and 2007–08. Other fields with sizable numbers of degrees (over 5,000) that showed increases of over 30 percent between 2002–03 and 2007–08 included security and protective services (54 percent) and parks, recreation, and leisure studies (40 percent).

Approximately 57 percent of first-time students seeking a bachelor's degree or its equivalent and attending a 4-year institution full time in 2001 completed a bachelor's degree or its equivalent at that institution within 6 years (table 331). This graduation rate is the percentage of students first enrolled at an institution in the 2001–02 academic year who completed a degree at that institution within the specified time to degree attainment. Graduation rates were higher at private not-for-profit institutions than at public or private for-profit institutions. The 6-year graduation rate for the 2001 cohort at private not-for-profit institutions was 64 percent, compared with 55 percent at public institutions and 24 percent at private for-profit institutions. Graduation rates also varied by race/ethnicity. At 4-year institutions overall, the 6-year graduation rate for Asians/Pacific Islanders in the 2001 cohort was 67 percent, compared with 60 percent for Whites, 48 percent for Hispanics, 42 percent for Blacks, and 39 percent for American Indians/Alaska Natives.

Finances and Financial Aid For the 2008–09 academic year, annual prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $12,283 at public institutions and $31,233 at private institutions (table 334). Between 1998–99 and 2008–09, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 32 percent, and prices at private institutions rose 24 percent, after adjustment for inflation.

In 2007–08, about 80 percent of full-time undergraduate students received financial aid (grants, loans, work-study, or aid of multiple types) (table 338). About 63 percent of full-time undergraduates received federal financial aid in 2007–08, and 63 percent received aid from nonfederal sources. (Some students receive aid from both federal and nonfederal sources.) Section 484(r) of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, suspends a student’s eligibility for Title IV federal financial aid if the student is convicted of certain drug-related offenses that were committed while the student was receiving Title IV aid. The Digest is congressionally mandated to report on student loss of eligibility under this provision. Less than 0.1 percent of postsecondary students had their eligibility to receive aid suspended for 2008–09 (table C).

Suspension status Number of applications Percentage distribution
Total 16,412,471 100
No suspension of eligibility 16,405,757 99.96
Suspension of eligibility    
For part of award year (suspension ends during year) 946 0.01
For full award year    
Due to conviction 2,853 0.02
Due to failure to report conviction status on aid application form 2,915 0.02

NOTE: It is not possible to determine whether a student who lost eligibility due to a drug conviction otherwise would have received Title IV aid, since there are other reasons why an applicant may not receive aid. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), unpublished data.

In 2006–07, average total expenditures per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student at public degree-granting colleges were $25,130 (table 362). This total reflects an increase of about 3 percent between 2003–04 and 2006–07, after adjustment for inflation. In 2006–07, public 4-year colleges had average total expenditures per FTE student of $33,670, compared with $11,609 at public 2-year colleges. At private not-for-profit colleges, total expenditures per FTE student rose 17 percent between 1996–97 and 2006–07, after adjustment for inflation (table 364). In 2006–07, total expenditures per FTE student at private not-for-profit colleges were $42,060; they averaged $42,256 at 4-year colleges and $19,498 at 2-year colleges. The expenditures per FTE student at private for-profit institutions were $12,880 in 2006–07, which was about 7 percent higher than in 1998–99, after adjustment for inflation (table 366). The difference between average expenditures per FTE student at private for-profit 4-year colleges ($12,551) and private for-profit 2-year colleges ($13,848) was relatively small compared to the differences between 2-year and 4-year public and private not-for-profit colleges.

As of June 30, 2007, the market value of the endowment funds of colleges and universities was $410 billion, with the 120 colleges with the largest endowments accounting for $310 billion of that amount (table 361). The market value of endowment funds of U.S. colleges and universities increased 22 percent between 2006 and 2007. The five colleges with the largest endowments in 2007 were Harvard University ($35 billion), Yale University ($22 billion), Stanford University ($17 billion), Princeton University ($16 billion), and the University of Texas System ($14 billion). These values do not reflect changes that have occurred since 2007 in response to economic conditions.


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.