Higher education in the United States
|Education in the United States|
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Higher education in the United States is an optional stage of formal learning following secondary education. Higher education, also referred to as post-secondary education, third-stage, third-level, or tertiary education occurs most commonly at one of the 4,360 Title IV degree-granting institutions, either colleges or universities in the country. These may be public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or for-profit colleges. US higher education is loosely regulated by several third-party organizations varying in quality.
High-visibility issues include college affordability, rising tuition and increasing student loan debt, unfair admissions and academic cheating, greater use of online education, competency-based education, free speech and hate speech, bullying of students in higher education, fraternity hazing, campus sexual assault, cutbacks in state and local spending, the adjunctification of academic labor, and student poverty and hunger.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and National Student Clearinghouse, college enrollment has declined since a peak in 2010–11 and is projected to continue declining or be stagnant for the next two decades.
In 2018, U21, a network of research-intensive universities, ranked the US first globally for overall higher education, but only 15th when GDP was factored into the equation. Accounting for GDP, the top 10 nations for higher education in 2018 were Finland, the United Kingdom, Serbia, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland, South Africa, Israel and New Zealand.
Strong research funding helped elite American universities dominate global rankings in the early 21st century, making them attractive to international students, professors and researchers. Other countries, though, are offering incentives to compete for researchers as funding is threatened in the US  and US dominance of international tables has lessened.
The system has also been blighted by fly-by-night schools, diploma mills, visa mills, and predatory for-profit colleges. There have been some attempts to reform the system through federal policy such as gainful employment regulations, but they have been met by resistance.
According to Pew Research Center and Gallup poll surveys, public opinion about colleges has been declining, especially among Republicans and the white working class. The higher education industry has been criticized for being unnecessarily expensive, providing a difficult-to-measure service which is seen as vital but in which providers are paid for inputs instead of outputs, which is beset with federal regulations that drive up costs, and payments coming from third parties, not users. In a 2018 Pew survey, 61 percent of those polled said that US higher education was headed in the wrong direction. A 2019 Gallup survey found that, among graduates who strongly felt a purpose in life was important, "only 40 percent said they had found a meaningful career after college."
- 1 Functions
- 2 Statistics
- 3 Types of colleges and universities
- 4 Student funding
- 5 Interest groups
- 6 History
- 6.1 Colonial era
- 6.2 18th century law and medical schools
- 6.3 Timeline of key federal legislation
- 6.4 19th century
- 6.5 20th century
- 6.6 21st century
- 7 Funding of schools
- 8 Admission process
- 9 International study and student exchange
- 10 Government coordination
- 11 Academic labor and adjunctification
- 12 Athletics
- 13 Selected issues
- 13.1 Educational pipeline
- 13.2 Choosing a college or university
- 13.3 Socioeconomic status
- 13.4 Race and ethnicity
- 13.5 Gender
- 13.6 Undocumented students
- 13.7 Rural, urban, and suburban
- 14 Criticism
- 14.1 Cost and finances
- 14.2 For-profit schools and visa mills
- 14.3 Student loan debt
- 14.4 Graduation rates
- 14.5 Academic standards
- 14.6 Political views
- 14.7 Geographic considerations
- 14.8 Skepticism about higher education
- 14.9 Declining accessibility and high cost
- 14.10 Student debt crisis
- 14.11 Ending affirmative action
- 14.12 Alcohol and drug abuse
- 14.13 Sexual assault
- 14.14 Student poverty and hunger
- 14.15 Higher education and mental health
- 15 See also
- 16 References
- 17 Further reading
- 18 Trade publications
- 19 External links
Beyond its function as an institution of knowledge, US higher education has several functions. Marcus Ford identified four phases in the development of US higher education based on the primary function that characterized that phase: preserving Christian civilization; advancing the national interest; research; and growing the global economy. It has also served as a source for professional credentials, as a vehicle for social mobility, and as a social sorter.
In The Higher Education Bubble, Glenn Harlan Reynolds states that college functions as a 'status marker', "signaling membership in the educated class, and a place to meet spouses of similar status".
US educational statistics are provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the Department of Education. The number of Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions peaked at 4,726 in 2012: 3,026 4-year institutions and 1,700 2-year institutions; by 2016–17, the total had declined to 4,360 institutions, including 2832 4-year institutions and 1528 2-year institutions. Fall enrollment at postsecondary institutions participating in Title IV peaked at just over 21.5 million students in 2010 (just over 21 million at degree-granting institutions).
|Year||Fall enrollment||Degree-granting institutions|
A US Department of Education longitudinal survey of 15,000 high school students in 2002 and 2012, found that 84% of the 27-year-old students had some college education, but only 34% achieved a bachelor's degree or higher; 79% owe some money for college and 55% owe more than $10,000; college dropouts were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who finished college; 40% spent some time unemployed and 23% were unemployed for six months or more; and 79% earned less than $40,000 per year.
Declining enrollment, mergers, and campus closures
Falling birth rates result in fewer people graduating from high school. The number of high school graduates grew 30% from 1995 to 2013, then peaked at 3.5 million; projections show it holding at that level in the next decade.
In 2018, the National Center for Education Statistics projected stagnant enrollment patterns until at least 2027. Demographer Nathan Grawe also projected that lower birth rates following the Great Recession of 2008 would result in a 15 percent enrollment loss, beginning in 2026.
Liberal Arts programs have been declining for decades. From 1967 to 2018, college students majoring in the liberal arts declined from 20 percent to 5 percent.
In 2019, the National Center for Education Statistics continued to project that higher education enrollment would remain stagnant, but white enrollment would drop 8 percent from 2016 to 2027. The report also projected black enrollment to increase by 6 percent, Hispanic enrollment to increase 14 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander enrollment to increase 7 percent, and American Indian/Alaska Native enrollment to decrease 9 percent during the same period.
In a 2019 survey by Inside Higher Ed, nearly one in seven college presidents said their campus could close or merge within five years. In April 2019, Connecticut presented a plan to consolidate their community colleges with their accreditor.
In "The Higher Education Apocalypse", U.S. News & World Report education reporter Lauren Camera speculated that recent closings of schools in New England might be the beginning of a rash of college closures.
Types of colleges and universities
US Colleges and universities vary in their goals: some emphasize a vocational, business, engineering, or technical curriculum (like polytechnic universities and land-grant universities) and others emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above, as comprehensive universities. The term "college" refers to one of three types of education institutions: stand-alone higher level education institutions that are not components of a university, including 1) community colleges, 2) liberal arts colleges, or 3) a college within a university, mostly the undergraduate institution of a university. Unlike colleges versus universities in other portions of the world, a stand-alone college is truly stand-alone and is not part of a university, and is also not affiliated with an affiliating university.
Almost all colleges and universities are coeducational. During a dramatic transition in the 1970s, all but a handful of men's colleges started accepting women. Over 80% of the women's colleges of the 1960s have closed or merged, leaving fewer than 50 alive. Over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) operate, both private (such as Morehouse College) and public (such as North Carolina A&T State University).
Higher education has led to the creation of accreditation organizations, independent of the government, to vouch for the quality of degrees. Accreditation agencies rate institutions on criteria such as academic quality, the quality of their libraries, the publishing records of their faculty, the degrees which their faculty hold, and their financial solvency. Accrediting agencies have been criticized for possible conflicts of interest that lead to favorable results. Non-accredited institutions exist, but the students are not eligible for federal loans.
Community colleges are often two-year colleges. They have open admissions, usually with lower tuition fees than other state or private schools. Graduates receive an associate's degree, such as an Associate of Arts (A.A.), upon graduating. Many students earn an AA at a two-year institution before transferring to a four-year institution to complete studies for a bachelor's degree.
According to National Student Clearinghouse data, community college enrollment has dropped by 1.6 million students since its peak year of 2010–11. According to one survey, 88% of community colleges were facing declining enrollments. A The New York Times report in 2017 suggested that of the nation's 18 million undergraduates, 40% were attending community college; of these students, 62% were attending community college full-time, and 40% of them worked at least 30 hours a week or more, and more than half lived at home as a way to save money.
Some U.S. states now offer higher education at "colleges" which were formerly called "community colleges". The elevation in status comes from a cooperation between the community college and a local university. There are two primary distinctions between colleges and community colleges that arise from this arrangement.
Four-year colleges often have a larger number of students, offer a greater range of studies, and provide the bachelor's degree (most commonly the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.). They are primarily either undergraduate institutions (e.g. liberal arts colleges), or the undergraduate institution of a university (such as Harvard College and Yale College).
The first is an increased standardization of curricula and adherence to some university guidelines at the colleges, thereby improving the chances that (former) community college credits are transferred to in-state universities. The aim is to maximize the number of transferred credits, as this has been a issue that forces students to take redundant coursework, pay more tuition, and puts them at a disadvantage upon transfer.
The second distinction is that the renamed colleges, in cooperation with a university, can offer courses that go beyond the 2-year-level of education that is typical of community colleges. Some colleges offer particular, specialized 4-year bachelor's degrees on behalf of the university.
Liberal arts colleges
Four-year institutions emphasizing the liberal arts are liberal arts colleges, entirely undergraduate institutions and stand-alone. They traditionally emphasize interactive instruction, though student research projects are of growing importance. They are known for being residential and for having smaller enrollment, class size, and higher teacher-student ratios than universities. They encourage a high level of teacher-student interaction, with classes taught by full-time faculty, rather than graduate student teaching assistants (TAs), who often teach classes at some Research I universities and other universities. Most are private,[according to whom?] although there are public liberal arts colleges. Some offer experimental curricula, such as Hampshire College, Beloit College, Bard College at Simon's Rock, Pitzer College, Sarah Lawrence College, Grinnell College, Bennington College, New College of Florida, and Reed College.
Technical schools are four-year institutions that emphasize a particular trade or set of technical skills, primarily for the sake of employability.
Universities are research-oriented educational institutions with undergraduate and graduate programs. For historical reasons, some universities such as Boston College, Dartmouth College, The College of William & Mary, and College of Charleston have retained the term college instead of "university" as their name. Graduate programs grant a variety of master's degrees (like the Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) or Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in addition to doctorates such as the Ph.D. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education distinguishes among institutions on the basis of the prevalence of degrees they grant and considers the granting of master's degrees necessary, though not sufficient, for an institution to be classified as a university.
Some universities have professional schools. Examples include journalism school, business school, medical schools which award either the M.D. or D.O., law schools (J.D.), veterinary schools (D.V.M.), pharmacy schools (Pharm.D.), and dental schools. A common practice is to refer to different units within universities as colleges or schools, what is referred to outside the U.S. as faculties. Some colleges may be divided into departments, including an anthropology department within a college of liberal arts and sciences, within a larger university. Few universities adopt the term "college" as names of academic organizations. For example, Purdue University is composed of multiple colleges—among others, the College of Agriculture and the College of Engineering. Of these Purdue breaks the College of Agriculture down into departments, such as the Department of Agronomy or the Department of Entomology, while Purdue breaks down the College of Engineering into schools, such as the School of Electrical Engineering, which enrolls more students than some of its colleges do. Purdue categorizes both its undergraduate students (and faculty and programs) and its post-graduate students (and faculty and programs) via this scheme of decomposition, a topical decomposition that focuses on an academic sector of directly related academic disciplines.
The American university system is largely decentralized. Public universities are administered by the individual states and territories, usually as part of a state university system. Except for the United States service academies and staff colleges, the federal government does not directly regulate universities. However, it can offer federal grants and any institution that receives federal funds must certify that it has adopted and implemented a drug prevention program that meets federal regulations.
Each state supports at least one state university and several support many more. California, for example, has three public higher education systems: the 10-campus University of California, the 23-campus California State University, and the 112-campus California Community Colleges System. Public universities often have a large student body, with introductory classes numbering in the hundreds, and some undergraduate classes taught by graduate students. Tribal colleges operated on Indian reservations by some federally recognized tribes are also public institutions.
Many private universities also exist. Some are secular and others are involved in religious education. Some are non-denominational and some are affiliated with a certain sect or church, such as Roman Catholicism (with different institutions often sponsored by particular religious institutes such as the Jesuits) or religions such as Lutheranism or Mormonism. Seminaries are private institutions for those preparing to become members of the clergy. Most private schools (like all public schools) are non-profit, although some are for-profit.
For-profit higher education (known as for-profit college or proprietary education in some instances) refers to higher education institutions operated by private, profit-seeking businesses. University of Phoenix has been the largest for-profit college in the US.
Since 2010, for-profit colleges have received greater scrutiny and negative attention from the US government, state Attorneys General, the media, and scholars.
Notable business failures include Corinthian Colleges (2015), ITT Educational Services (2016), Education Management Corporation also known as EDMC (2017), and Education Corporation of America (2018).
In 2018 and 2019, Dream Center Education Holdings, a non-profit organization, closed most of their Art Institutes campuses, which had formerly been for-profit colleges owned by for-profit EDMC and the court receiver reported $9-$13 million in student aid meant for students missing.
In a 2019 Brookings Institution report, students taking online courses at for-profit colleges were "attracted to the programs for their ease of enrollment and help obtaining financial aid," but "disappointed with the poor quality of education...."
In 2016, average estimated annual student costs (excluding books) were $16,757 at public institutions, $43,065 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,776 at private for-profit institutions. Between 2006 and 2016, prices at public colleges and universities rose 34 percent above inflation, and prices at private nonprofit institutions rose 26 percent above inflation.
Students often use scholarships, student loans, or grants to supplement their tuition costs, rather than paying all tuition out-of-pocket. Several states offer scholarships that allow students to attend free of tuition or at lower cost, for example the HOPE Scholarship in Georgia and the Bright Futures Scholarship Program in Florida. A considerable number[clarification needed] of private liberal arts colleges and universities offer full need-based financial aid, which means that admitted students will only have to pay as much as their families can afford (based on the university's assessment of their income). This can turn some of the most prestigious institutions into the cheapest options for low-income students. In most cases, the barrier of entry for students who require financial aid is set higher, a practice called need-aware admissions. Universities with exceptionally large endowments may combine need-based financial aid with need-blind admission, in which students who require financial aid have equal chances to those who do not.
Financial assistance comes in two primary forms: grant programs and loan programs. Grant programs consist of money the student receives to pay for higher education that does not need to be paid back, while loan programs consist of money the student receives to pay for higher education that must be paid back. Public higher education institutions (which are partially funded through state government appropriation) and private higher education institutions (which are funded exclusively through tuition and private donations) offer both grant and loan financial assistance programs. Grants to attend public schools are distributed through federal and state governments, as well as through the schools themselves; grants to attend private schools are distributed through the school itself (independent organizations, such as charities or corporations also offer grants that can be applied to both public and private higher education institutions). Loans can be obtained publicly through government sponsored loan programs or privately through independent lending institutions.
Grants, scholarships, and work study programs
Grant programs and work study programs, can be divided into two major categories: Need-based financial awards and merit-based financial awards. Most state governments provide need-based scholarship programs, while a few also offer merit-based aid. Several need-based grants are provided through the federal government based on information provided on a student's Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. The federal Pell Grant is a need-based grant available from the federal government. The federal government also has two other grants that are a combination of need-based and merit-based: the Academic Competitiveness Grant, and the National SMART Grant, but the SMART grant was abolished in 2011 with the last grant awarded in June 2011. In order to receive one of these grants a student must be eligible for the Pell Grant, meet specific academic requirements, and be a US citizen.
Eligibility for work study programs is also determined by information collected on the student's FAFSA. Need-based financial awards are money or work study jobs provided to students who do not have the financial resources by themselves to pay for higher education. The intent of need-based financial aid is to close the gap between the required cost to pay for the higher education and the money that is available to pay for the education.
Merit-based financial awards are money given to a student based on a particular gift, talent, conditional situation, or ability that is worthy of the monetary award, regardless of economic standing. The intent of merit-based financial aid is to encourage and reward students who exhibit these qualities, in the hopes that they will attend the university providing the merit-based award or scholarship. Not only does merit-based assistance benefit the student, but the benefit is seen as reciprocal for the educational institution itself, as students who exhibit exceptional qualities are able to enhance the development of the school itself.
Financial aid is also linked to increased enrollment. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that an increased availability of any amount of financial aid leads to increased enrollment rates. Access to financial aid may also increase both "persistence and competition". Further benefit has been noted with academic-based scholarships, augmenting the effects of financial aid by incentivizing the scholarship with performance-based requirements.
Many companies offer tuition reimbursement plans for their employees, to make benefits package more attractive, to upgrade the skill levels and to increase retention.
In 2012, total student loans exceeded consumer credit card debt for the first time in history.
In late 2016, the total estimated US student loan debt exceeded $1.4 trillion.
In January 2018, the Brookings Institution published a report titled "The looming student loan default crisis is worse than we thought." The report estimated that nearly 40 percent of borrowers may default on their student loans by 2023.
In November 2018, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated that the $1.5 billion in student loan debt was a "crisis". According to DeVos, "Our higher-ed system is the envy of the world, but if we as a country do not make important policy changes in the way we distribute, administer and manage federal student loans, the program on which so many students rely will be in serious jeopardy."
Many different types of loans can be taken out by a student or the student's parents in order to pay for higher education. In general these can be divided into two categories: federal student loans and private student loans.
Federal student loans
There are four kinds of federal student loans: subsidized Stafford Loans, unsubsidized Stafford Loans, direct loans, and PLUS loans. A student's eligibility for any of these loans, as well as the amount of the loan itself is determined by information on the student's FAFSA. The interest rate and whether or not interest accrues on the loan while the student is in school depends of the type of federal loan. For example, subsidized Stafford Loans do not accrue interest while a student is enrolled in a university, whereas unsubsidized Stafford Loans accrue interest as soon as a student receives them.
In November 2016, the US Department of Education issued a new regulation of student loan repayments known as "Borrower Defense". This rule was intended to reform the Direct Loan Program so student loans would be easier to repay. On July 25, 2018, US Secretary of Education Betsy Devos issued a rule declaring that the Borrow Defense rule would be repealed effective July 1, 2019. A stricter repayment policy will take its place.
In 2019, the number of Borrower Defense claims had risen to 158,000 individuals, an increase of about 50 percent in six months. However, the US Department of Education had not settled any cases since June 2018.
Private student loans
Students can acquire loans privately, through banks, credit unions, savings and loan associations, or other finance companies (ref. article p. 3). Private loans are often used to supplement federal student loans, which have a yearly borrowing limit. However, private loans usually have more rigid repayment policies.
Education tax credits
US taxpayers may be eligible for tax credits designed to help make higher education more affordable. There are two different tax credits meant to help defray the costs of higher education: the Hope Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.
Student loan asset-backed securities
Student loan asset-backed securities, also known as SLABS, are pools of student loan debts that are packaged and sold as financial instruments. Approximately $190 billion of student loans have been securitized.
Free college tuition
Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Oregon offer free tuition for community college students. Community college tuition was free in California from 1960 to 1984. The City University of New York also offered free tuition from 1970 to 1976.
Legislation for free community college has been proposed in 11 other states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Washington, and Wisconsin.
DOD Tuition Assistance and VA GI Bill
The US Department of Defense pays out funds for servicemembers while on active duty. Veterans are also eligible for GI Bill benefits that pay for college expenses through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Interest groups in US higher education include philanthropic foundations, trade unions, trade associations, think tanks, and businesses associated with higher education.
Trade associations include the American Council on Education, American Association of Community Colleges, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and Association of American Universities.
Businesses associated with higher education include student loan lenders, student loan debt collectors, academic publishers, and online program management companies. Notable companies include Wells Fargo, Discover Financial Services, Navient, Sallie Mae, Pearson, and Prentice Hall.
This article appears to contradict the article History of higher education in the United States. (May 2015) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Religious denominations established most early colleges in order to train ministers. Harvard College was founded by the colonial legislature in 1636. In 1659, Polish Aleksander Karol Kurcjusz first established higher education in New Amsterdam (Bobr-Tylingo 1982, 145). Harvard initially focused on training young men for the ministry, and won general support from the Puritan government, some of whose leaders had attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The College of William & Mary was founded by Virginia government in 1693, with 20,000 acres (81 km2) of land for an endowment, and a penny tax on every pound of tobacco, together with an annual appropriation. James Blair, the leading Church of England minister in the colony, was president for 50 years, and the college won the broad support of the Virginia gentry. It trained many of the lawyers, politicians, and leading planters. Yale College was founded in 1701, and in 1716 was relocated to New Haven, Connecticut. The conservative Puritan ministers of Connecticut had grown dissatisfied with the more liberal theology of Harvard, and wanted their own school to train orthodox ministers. New Light Presbyterians in 1747 set up the College of New Jersey, in the town of Princeton, which later was renamed Princeton University.
Enslavement, oppression, and exclusion
In Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder documented the history of early higher education in the US, including the oppression of indigenous people and enslaved Africans at elite colleges.Brown University, Harvard, Dartmouth, William and Mary, University of Virginia, Georgetown University, University of Alabama, University of South Carolina, Clemson University and Rutgers University, held enslaved people—and relied on captives to operate.
18th century law and medical schools
There were no schools of law in the early British colonies, thus no schools of law were in America in colonial times. A few lawyers studied at the highly prestigious Inns of Court in London, while the majority served apprenticeships with established American lawyers. Law was very well established in the colonies, compared to medicine, which was in rudimentary condition. In the 18th century, 117 Americans had graduated in medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, but most physicians in the colonies learned as apprentices. In Philadelphia, the Medical College of Philadelphia was founded in 1765, and became affiliated with the university in 1791. In New York, the medical department of King's College was established in 1767, and in 1770 awarded the first American M.D. degree.
Timeline of key federal legislation
- Morrill Act (1862 and 1890)
- Federal Student Aid Program (1934)
- Servicemen's Readjustment Act or GI Bill (1944)
- National Defense Education Act (1958)
- Higher Education Act (1965 and 1972)
Protestants and Catholics opened over hundreds of small denominational colleges in the 19th century. Many closed or merged but in 1905 there were over 500 in operation. In 1899 they enrolled 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates.  Catholics opened several women's colleges in the early 20th century. Schools were small, with a limited undergraduate curriculum based on the liberal arts. Students were drilled in Greek, Latin, geometry, ancient history, logic, ethics and rhetoric, with few discussions and no lab sessions. Originality and creativity were not prized, but exact repetition was rewarded. College presidents typically enforced strict discipline, and upperclassman enjoyed hazing freshman. Many students were younger than 17, and most colleges also operated a preparatory school. There were no organized sports, or Greek-letter fraternities, but literary societies were active. Tuition was low and scholarships were few. Many of their students were sons of clergymen; most planned professional careers as ministers, lawyers or teachers.
The nation's small colleges helped young men make the transition from rural farms to complex urban occupations. These schools promoted upward mobility by preparing ministers and providing towns with a core of community leaders. Elite colleges became increasingly exclusive and contributed little upward social mobility. By concentrating on the offspring of wealthy families, and ministers, elite Eastern colleges such as Harvard, played a role in the formation of a Northeastern elite.
Catholic colleges and universities
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities was founded in 1899 and continues to facilitate the exchange of information and methods. Vigorous debate in recent decades has focused on how to balance Catholic and academic roles, with conservatives arguing that bishops should exert more control to guarantee orthodoxy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, less than 1,000 colleges with 160,000 students existed in the US. The number of colleges skyrocketed in waves, during the early and mid 20th century. State universities grew from small institutions of fewer than 1000 students to campuses with 40,000 more students, with networks of regional campuses around the state. In turn, regional campuses broke away and became separate universities. To handle the explosive growth of K–12 education, every state set up a network of teachers' colleges, beginning with Massachusetts in the 1830s. After 1950, they became state colleges and then state universities with a broad curriculum.
Junior colleges grew from 20 in number In 1909, to 170 in 1919. By 1922, 37 states had set up 70 junior colleges, enrolling about 150 students each. Meanwhile, another 137 were privately operated, with about 60 students each. Rapid expansion continued in the 1920s, with 440 junior colleges in 1930 enrolling about 70,000 students. The peak year for private institutions came in 1949, when there were 322 junior colleges in all; 180 were affiliated with churches, 108 were independent non-profit, and 34 were private Schools run for-profit.
Many factors contributed to rapid growth of community colleges. Students parents and businessmen wanted nearby, low-cost schools to provide training for the growing white-collar labor force, as well as for more advanced technical jobs in the blue collar sphere. Four-year colleges were also growing, albeit not as fast; however, many of them were located in rural or small-town areas away from the fast-growing metropolis. Community colleges continue as open-enrollment, low-cost institutions with a strong component of vocational education, as well as a low-cost preparation for transfer students into four-year schools. They appeal to a poorer, older, less prepared element.
Student activism and grade inflation
College students were involved in social movements long before the 20th century, but the most dramatic student movements rose in the 1960s. In the 1960s, students organized for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, students led movements for women's rights and gay rights, as well as protests against South African apartheid. The same period saw a distinct rise in student GPAs.
While for-profit colleges originated during Colonial times, growth in these schools was most apparent from the 1980s to about 2011. For-profit college enrollment, however, has declined significantly since 2011, after several federal investigations. For-profit colleges were criticized for predatory marketing and sales practices. The failures of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute were the most remarkable closings.
In 2018, the documentary Fail State chronicled the boom and bust of for-profit colleges, highlighting the abuses that led to their downfall.
Changing technology, mergers and closings, and politics have resulted in dramatic changes in US higher education during the 21st century.
Online education has grown in the early 21st century. More than 6.3 million students in the U.S. took at least one online course in fall 2016. While online attendance has increased, confidence among chief academic officers has decreased from 70.8 percent in 2015 to 63.3 percent in 2016. In 2017, about 15% of all students attended exclusively online, and competition for online students has been increasing
By 2018, more than one hundred short-term coding bootcamps existed in the US. Programs were available at Harvard University's extension school and the extension schools at Georgia Tech, University of Pennsylvania, Cal Berkeley, Northwestern, UCLA, University of North Carolina, University of Texas, George Washington, Vanderbilt University, and Rutgers through Trilogy Education Services.
In 2019, researchers at George Mason University concluded that online education has "contributed to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to improve affordability".
A MOOC is a massive open online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. It became popular in 2010–14. In addition to traditional course materials such as filmed lectures, readings, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive user forums to support community interactions between students, professors, and teaching assistants. Robert Zemsky (2014) notes that they at first seemed to be an extremely inexpensive method of bringing top teachers at low cost directly to students. However, very few students—usually under 5%—were able to finish a MOOC course. He argues that they have passed their peak: "They came; they conquered very little; and now they face substantially diminished prospects." In 2019, researchers at MIT found that MOOCs had completion rates of 3 percent and that the number of people taking these courses has been declining since 2012–13.
Online programs for many universities are often managed by privately owned companies called OPMs. The OPMs include 2U, HotChalk and iDesign. Trace Urdan, managing director at Tyton Partners, "estimates that the market for OPMs and related services will be worth nearly $8 billion by 2020." 
Financial difficulties, mergers and downsizing
Hundreds of colleges are expected to close or merge, according to research from Ernst & Young. The US Department of Education publishes a monthly list of campus and learning site closings. Typically there are 300 to 1000 closings per year. Notable college closings include for-profit Corinthian Colleges (2015), ITT Technical Institute (2016), Brightwood College and Virginia College(2018). Private college closings include Wheelock College (2018) and Green Mountain College (2019).
In December 2017, Moody's credit rating agency downgraded the US higher education outlook from stable to negative, "citing financial strains at both public and private four-year institutions." In June 2018, Moody's released data on declining college enrollments and constraints, noting that tuition pricing would suppress tuition revenue growth.
Protests and political clashes
On August 11, 2017, White nationalists and members of the alt-right rallied at the University of Virginia, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The following day, one person died during protests in Charlottesville. Following this event, speaking engagements by Richard Spencer were canceled at Texas A&M University and the University of Florida.
Funding of schools
Sources of funds
Oversight of federal funds
State government austerity
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "years of cuts in state funding for public colleges and universities" have made college less affordable and less accountable for students. As a result, public colleges and universities must close campuses, retain fewer professors and staff, and drive up tuition costs. The decline in funding for these public institutions since the Great Recession is nearly "$9 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation."
The long-term consequences of a decline in state funding for public colleges and universities are fewer low-income students, more non-residents of the state (non-resident tuition is typically three times resident tuition), and higher tuition.
Since the Great Recession, U.S. universities have transitioned from federal grants to corporate funds and have been "increasingly reliant on private philanthropy". At the University of Maryland, Northrop Grumman has funded a cybersecurity concentration, designs the curriculum in cybersecurity, provides computers and pays some cost of a new dorm. At Ohio State, IBM partnered to teach big data analytics. Murray State University's engineering program was supported by computer companies. The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at State University of New York in Albany, received billions of dollars in private sector investment.
Privatization of state flagship universities
Large gifts from donors have exceeded $100 million. In a 2019 Inside Higher Education survey, fifteen percent of campus leaders say their institution was offered large financial gifts with inappropriate strings attached.
Institutional endowments and concentration of educational wealth
The five wealthiest universities are:
- Harvard University $39.2 billion
- Yale University $29.4 billion
- University of Texas $26.5 billion
- Stanford University $26.5 billion
- Princeton University $25.9 billion
According to the New York Times, endowments from elite universities have invested billions of dollars in offshore accounts to "skirt taxes and obscure investments that could spark campus protests."
Students can apply to some colleges using the Common Application. With a few exceptions, most undergraduate colleges and universities maintain the policy that students are to be admitted to (or rejected from) the entire college, not to a particular department or major. (This is unlike college admissions in many European countries, as well as graduate admissions.) Some students, rather than being rejected, are "wait-listed" for a particular college and may be admitted if another student who was admitted decides not to attend the college or university. The five major parts of admission are ACT/SAT scores, grade point average, college application, essay, and letters of recommendation. The SAT's usefulness in the admissions process is controversial. It may or may not be biased, and it may or may not serve as a check on grade inflation in secondary schools. Nevertheless, some colleges are making the SAT optional for applying students.
Inside Higher Education's 2018 survey of college admissions directors found that 42 percent of private colleges and universities used legacy status as a factor in admissions decisions.
International study and student exchange
In 2007–08, American students numbering 262,416 studied outside the country with more than 140,000 of these studying in Europe.
The US is the most popular country in the world in terms of attracting students from other countries, according to UNESCO, with 16% of all international students going to the US (the next highest is the UK with 11%). 671,616 foreign students enrolled in American colleges in 2008–09. This figure rose to 723,277 in 2010–11. The largest number, 157,558, came from China. According to Uni in the USA, despite "exorbitant" costs of US universities, higher education in America remains attractive to international students due to "generous subsidies and financial aid packages that enable students from even the most disadvantaged backgrounds to attend the college of their dreams".
Every state has an entity designed to promote coordination and collaboration between higher education institutions. A few are listed: Alabama Commission on Higher Education, California Postsecondary Education Commission, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, The Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education.
Academic labor and adjunctification
Until the mid-1970s, when federal expenditures for higher education fell, there were routinely more tenure-track jobs than Ph.D. graduates. In the 1980s and 1990s significant changes in the economics of academic life were felt. Some critics identified the changes as a new "corporatization of the university." Academic jobs were viewed by many intellectuals as desirable, because of the autonomy and intellectual freedom they allowed (especially because of the tenure system), despite their low pay compared to other professions requiring extensive education.
In 2012, by contrast, despite rising tuition rates and growing university revenues, professorial positions were rarer, replaced with poorly paid adjunct positions and graduate-student labor. People with doctorates in the sciences, and, to a lesser extent, mathematics, often found jobs outside of academia (or worked, part-time, in industry to supplement their incomes). A Ph.D. in the humanities and many social sciences prepared the student primarily for academic employment. However, a large proportion of such Ph.D.s—ranging from 30% to 60%—were unable to obtain tenure-track jobs. They chose between adjunct positions, which paid less and lacked job security; teaching jobs in community colleges or in high schools, where little research is done; the non-academic job market, where they will tend to be overqualified; or some other course of study, such as law or business.
With academic institutions producing Ph.D.s in greater numbers than the number of tenure-track professorial positions they intended to create, there was little question that administrators were cognizant of the economic effects of this arrangement. Sociologist Stanley Aronowitz wrote: "Basking in the plenitude of qualified and credentialed instructors, many university administrators see the time when they can once again make tenure a rare privilege, awarded only to the most faithful and to those whose services are in great demand". Aggravating the problem, those few academics who do achieve tenure are often determined to stay put as long as possible, refusing lucrative incentives to retire early.
In 2015, some[who?] believed that, as a number of Baby Boomer professors retired, the academic job market would rebound. However, others predicted that this would not result in an appreciable growth of tenure-track positions, as universities would fill their needs with low-paid adjunct positions. Aronowitz ascribed this problem to the economic restructuring of academia as a whole:
The idea of an academic "job market" based on the balance of supply and demand in an open competitive arena is a fiction whose effect is to persuade the candidate that (he or she) simply lost out because of bad luck or lack of talent. The truth is otherwise.
In 2017, 17% of faculty was tenured. 89% of adjunct professors worked at more than one job. An adjunct was paid an average of $2,700 for a single course. 31% of the faculty lived below the poverty level. While student-faculty ratios remained the same since 1975, administrator-student ratio went from 1–84 to 1–68. student-professional staff ratios fell from 50:1 to 21:1. The money that colleges received went into administration and staff and not teaching. Glenn Harlan Reynolds stated:
Academics seem to think that the business world is in a feudal environment characterized by huge status differences and abusive treatment of underlings. They think that because, to be honest, that's a pretty good characterization of...the modern university, where serfs, in the form of adjunct professors toil in the vineyards
In 2018, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported that 73 percent of all faculty positions were filled by adjuncts. The UK Guardian also detailed the adjunct crisis in "Outclassed: The secret life of inequality." The article noted that a "2015 survey by Pacific Standard found that 62% of adjuncts made less than $20,000 a year."
Adjunct organizations include the Coalition for Contingent (COCAL), the New Faculty Majority, and SEIU Faculty Forward. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Teamsters Union have also organized contingent academic labor.
College athletics in the US is a two-tiered system. The first tier includes sports that are sanctioned by one of the collegiate sport governing bodies. Some of these collegiate sports governing organizations like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are umbrella non-profit organizations that govern multiple sports. Additionally, the first tier is characterized by selective participation, since only the elite programs in their sport are able to participate; some colleges offer athletic scholarships to intercollegiate sports competitors. The second tier includes all intramural and recreational sports clubs, which are available to a larger portion of the student body. Competition between student clubs from different colleges, not organized by and therefore not representing the institutions or their faculties, may also be called "intercollegiate" athletics or simply college sports.
The largest collegiate sport governing body in the first tier is the NCAA, which regulates athletes of 1,268 institutions across the US and Canada. The NCAA uses a three-division system of Division I, Division II, and Division III. Division I and Division II schools can offer scholarships to athletes for playing a sport, while Division III schools cannot offer any athletic scholarships. Division I schools, which generally are larger than either Division II or III institutions, must further meet additional requirements: among them, they must field teams in at least seven sports for men and seven for women or six for men and eight for women, with at least two team sports for each gender. Each division is then further divided into several conferences for regional league play. The names of these conferences, such as the Ivy League, may be used to refer to their respective schools as a group beyond a sports context.
College sports are popular on both regional and national scales, in many cases competing with professional championships for prime broadcast, print coverage. The average university sponsors at least twenty different sports and offers a wide variety of intramural sports as well. In total, there are approximately 400,000 men and women student-athletes that participate in sanctioned athletics each year.
US college students come from three major sources: the US K-12 pipeline, adult or non-traditional students, and foreign students. Projections about future enrollment patterns are based on demographic projections about these groups.
Race and class inequality and poverty in K–12 education
The US ranks[when?] third from the bottom among OECD nations, in terms of is poverty gap and 4th from the bottom in terms of poverty rate Jonathan Kozol has described these inequalities in K-12 education in Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.
In a 1998 Brookings Institution paper "Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education," Linda Darling-Hammond stated that "educational outcomes for minority children are much more a function of their unequal access to key educational resources, including skilled teachers and quality curriculum, than they are a function of race."
In 2016, the American Psychological Society added that racial bias by teachers and administrators is also a factor in student outcomes. This affects how teachers teach and administrator's discipline students.
Adult or nontraditional students
Adult or nontraditional students are those that do not matriculate immediately after high school graduation. This includes military veterans that use the GI Bill. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines nontraditional students as anyone who satisfies at least one of the following:
- Delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that he or she finished high school)
- Attends part-time for at least part of the academic year
- Works full-time (35 hours or more per week) while enrolled
- Is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid
- Has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but may also be caregivers of sick or elderly family members)
- Is a single parent (either not married or married but separated and has dependents)
- Does not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not finish high school)
Foreign students have been a growing part of US higher education. However, competition from other countries, changing immigration policies, and tensions between faculty and students have reduced the appeal for studying in the US.
Choosing a college or university
Those who attend US colleges and universities choose particular institutions based on several factors, including price, prestige and selectivity of the school, course offerings and college majors, location, campus culture, and job opportunities following graduation.
High school students aspiring to be selected to the best colleges start the college-choice process earlier and make decisions earlier. Financial aid is an important factor in students' college choice process. Rising college prices and the increased need to rely on loans constrain the college choice process for low-income students.
Latinx are more likely than white or African American students to begin postsecondary study at community colleges than at four‐year institutions. As a result of these decisions, Latinx are "converting existing colleges and institutions into HSIs (Historically Serving Institutions)."
African Americans have chosen historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) because of geography, religion, the college's academic reputation, and relatives' desires. The top three reasons for choosing predominantly white institutions has been athletic recruitment, proximity, and the college's academic reputation.
College preparedness and remediation
According to the Hechinger Report, public colleges report enrolling more than half a million of students who are unprepared for college. Most schools place students in remedial math or English courses before they can take a full load of college-level, credit-bearing courses. This remediation costs an estimated $7 billion a year.
Rankings of tertiary institutions
Universitas 21 ranked the country as having the best higher education system in the world in 2012. Cost was not considered in the rankings. Numerous organizations produce rankings of universities in the United States each year. A 2010 University of Michigan study has confirmed that the rankings in the United States have significantly affected colleges' applications and admissions. Referred to as the "granddaddy of the college rankings", America's best-known American college and university rankings have been compiled since 1983 by U.S. News & World Report and are widely regarded as the most influential of all college rankings.
Criticism of college and university rankings
On June 19, 2007, during the annual meeting of the Annapolis Group, members discussed the letter to college presidents asking them not to participate in the "reputation survey" section of the U.S. News & World Report survey (this section comprises 25% of the ranking). As a result, "a majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting said that they did not intend to participate in the U.S. News reputational rankings in the future." However, the decision to fill out the reputational survey or not will be left up to each individual college as: "the Annapolis Group is not a legislative body and any decision about participating in the US News rankings rests with the individual institutions." The statement also said that its members "have agreed to participate in the development of an alternative common format that presents information about their colleges for students and their families to use in the college search process." This database will be web-based and developed in conjunction with higher education organizations including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges. On June 22, 2007, U.S. News & World Report editor Robert Morse issued a response in which he argued, "in terms of the peer assessment survey, we at U.S. News firmly believe the survey has significant value because it allows us to measure the "intangibles" of a college that we can't measure through statistical data. Plus, the reputation of a school can help get that all-important first job and plays a key part in which grad school someone will be able to get into. The peer survey is by nature subjective, but the technique of asking industry leaders to rate their competitors is a commonly accepted practice. The results from the peer survey also can act to level the playing field between private and public colleges." In reference to the alternative database discussed by the Annapolis Group, Morse also argued, "It's important to point out that the Annapolis Group's stated goal of presenting college data in a common format has been tried before [...] U.S. News has been supplying this exact college information for many years already. And it appears that NAICU will be doing it with significantly less comparability and functionality. U.S. News first collects all these data (using an agreed-upon set of definitions from the Common Data Set). Then we post the data on our website in easily accessible, comparable tables. In other words, the Annapolis Group and the others in the NAICU initiative actually are following the lead of U.S. News."
Financial value of degrees
Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, presented in 2018, predicts a declining but still positive income premium for completing college, but a declining wealth premium that is almost indistinguishable from zero for the most recent cohort.
Other research shows that selection of a four-year college as compared to a two-year junior college, even by marginal students such as those with a C+ grade average in high school and SAT scores in the mid-800s, increases the probability of graduation and confers substantial economic and social benefits for most undergraduates. However, the admission of so many marginal students does impact graduation rates, partly due to the need for these students to take noncredit remedial courses in English, reading, math or science.
The returns on investment for marginal students or certain majors, especially at costly private universities, might not justify the investment.
Some fields of study produce many more graduates than the professions can take in. Due to the resulting higher education bubble, these graduates often have to consider jobs for which they are overqualified, or that have no academic requirements. Employers have responded to the oversupply of graduates by raising the academic requirements of many occupations higher than is really necessary to perform the work.
Failure to acquire degree-relevant employment soon after graduation often has a long-term impact on one's career, particularly for women and those with non-STEM degrees. Students can reduce the risk of underemployment by thorough evaluation of the employment prospects of each major, by taking full advantage of work experience programs, by choosing a high-demand specialization within a profession, and by acquiring broadly desirable skills. In addition to those that that are specific to a particular profession, employers in any profession are looking for evidence of critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, teamworking skills, information literacy, ethical judgment, decision-making skills, fluency in speaking and writing English, problem solving skills, and a wide knowledge of liberal arts and sciences.
People with higher education have always tended to have higher salaries and less unemployment than people with less education. However, the type of degree has a large impact on future earnings. Average annual earnings range from $27,000 for high school dropouts to $80,000 for those with a graduate degree. Undergraduate earnings range from $46,000 in education to $85,000 in architecture and engineering. Graduate earnings for those same majors are $61,000 and $107,000 respectively. It must be kept in mind, however, that these figures are only averages. There is a significant amount of overlap in the earning power of different levels of education, and the different fields of study.
Although vocational education is usually less financially lucrative in the long term than a bachelor's degree, it can still provide a respectable income at much less cost in time and money, sometimes with the option of upgrading to a bachelor's degree at a later date. Even ten years after graduation, there are many people with a certificate or associate degree who earn more money than those with a B.A.   It can also benefit university graduates, since some four-year schools fail to prepare their graduates for the kinds of jobs that are available in their surrounding regions. Over seven percent of the nation's community college students already possess a bachelor's degree.
Gainful employment is a concept that ties college attainment with improved job opportunities. In 2010, the Obama Administration began enacting gainful employment policies that required career colleges to maintain transparency and accountability about their effectiveness, and tied federal Title IV funding with gainful employment performance. Under Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, these policies have been unraveled. However, coverage of the Department of Education's College Scorecard includes socio-economic diversity and SAT/ACT scores of the student body, graduation rates, and average earnings and debt of graduates at all career colleges, nonprofit private colleges, and public colleges.
In 2018, the Urban Institute published a report on college ROI, noting that "Although higher education pays off for many, the exact returns for an individual are highly uncertain and evolve over time." The report added that factors include "the cost of higher education after grants; the length of time in school and the likelihood of certificate or degree completion; the earnings returns from a given level of degree, major, or institution; the student's demographic background; and local economic conditions."
College majors sorted by employment rates, wages and graduate degrees
Below is a table of college majors which can be sorted by various criteria. The data are from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the United States Census Bureau, and the American Community Survey. Note: The unemployment and underemployment rates are for recent college graduates (less than 28 years of age). National unemployment and underemployment rates come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. National percentage of graduate school completion is from the American Community Survey.
|Advertising and public relations||3.7%||47.7%||$40,000||$72,000||18.3%|
|Animal and plant sciences||3.0%||57.4%||$35,000||$60,000||34.8%|
|Commercial art and graphic design||4.9%||36.2%||$40,000||$60,000||10.9%|
|Early childhood education||1.7%||19.2%||$32,100||$41,000||38.2%|
|Family and consumer sciences||4.3%||44.6%||$32,000||$50,000||32.5%|
|General social sciences||4.6%||52.3%||$36,000||$60,000||37.9%|
|Information systems and management||5.0%||38.1%||$50,000||$75,000||24.0%|
|Leisure and hospitality||3.7%||63.0%||$34,200||$58,000||30.2%|
|Miscellaneous biological sciences||3.9%||46.5%||$35,000||$60,000||60.4%|
|Miscellaneous physical sciences||4.0%||35.9%||$46,000||$75,000||56.2%|
|Public policy and law||1.7%||62.8%||$40,000||$60,000||44.8%|
|Theology and religion||1.0%||46.9%||$32,000||$49,000||42.2%|
Socioeconomic status can play a significant role in an individual's enrollment, performance, and completion of their college degree and pursuit of higher education.
Children with parents in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an elite colleges and universities than children with parents in the bottom 20% of the income distribution.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2009 high school graduates from low-income families enrolled in college immediately at a rate of 55%. In comparison, 84% of high school graduates from high-income families enrolled immediately into college. Middle-class families also saw lower rates with 67% enrolling in college immediately. It also found that a high percentage of students who delayed enrollment in college attended high schools that had a high level of participation in the free and reduced lunch program. Students who work long hours in high school are less likely to pursue post-secondary education. Students who had access to financial aid contacts were more likely to enroll in higher education than students who did not have these contacts.
When considering how a college degree affects labor market outcomes, it is especially important to consider differences in socioeconomic status (SES). For example, research shows that students of low SES are more likely than their high SES peers to delay entering a college. This delay can cause different effects for different students. For example, research shows that students who delayed at least one year after high school were 64% less likely to complete their degree as opposed to those who enroll immediately after high school. In the same study, Bozick and DeLuca found that the average time delay for students in the lowest SES quartile was 13 months, while for students in higher SES quartiles averaged about 4 months.
Research in the area of delayed college enrollment is not extensive, however, a clear theme emerges in that lower SES students constitute a much larger percentage of students that delay enrollment, while students of higher SES tend to enroll immediately after high school. According to a similar study "an increase in family income of $10,000 decreases a student's odds of planning to delay by about 3%, and having a parent with a bachelor's degree decreases the odds of planning to delay by about 34%." This is significant, because by delaying enrollment low SES students are less likely to earn a college degree, and therefore they do not receive the benefits associated with completion.
Persistence and performance
A 2011 national study found that college students with a high socioeconomic status persisted in college 25% more than students with a low socioeconomic status. In fact, students with a high socioeconomic status are 1.55 times more likely to persist in college than students with a low socioeconomic status. Attaining even higher degrees than a bachelor's degree can also be affected by socioeconomic status. A 2008 study reports that 11% of students with low socioeconomic status report earning a master's, medical, or law degree compared to 42% of high socioeconomic students. Analyst Jeffrey Selingo wondered whether higher education had less and less ability to level the playing field. A 2007 study found that 52% of low-income students who qualified for college enrolled within 2 years of graduation compared to 83% of high-income students.
Socioeconomic status can also influence performance rates once at a university. According to a 2008 study, students with a low socioeconomic status study less, work more hours, have less interaction with faculty, and are less likely to join extra-curricular activities. 42% of students with low socioeconomic status indicated that they worked more than 16 hours a week during school, with a high percentage working up to 40 hours a week, although such students may benefit since potential employers assign great importance to a graduate's work experience. This is also evidence of a positive relation between socioeconomic status and social integration at university. In other words, middle-class students take part in more formal and informal social activities and have a greater sense of belonging to their universities than do working-class students.
Suzanne Mettler notes in her book, Degrees of Inequality, that in 1970 40% of US students in top income quartile had achieved a bachelor's degree by the age of 24. By 2013, this percentage rose to 77%. For students in the bottom income quartile, only 6% had earned a bachelor's degree in 1970. By 2013, this percentage was still at a marginal 9%. Unfortunately, there have been and continue to be many barriers for students of lower socioeconomic status to get access. There are certain organizations and programs that have capitalized on the idea that attaining a college degree, specifically at a top tier university, is critical to social mobility. Organizations like QuestBridge, a non-profit focused on helping students of low socioeconomic status and minority background, have helped historically underrepresented groups attain a significant degree of social advantage. QuestBridge is partnered with the nation's top 38 colleges and has helped over 13,000 students gain entrance into these universities since 2004. However, even these accomplishments are minuscule, when we recognize that there are between 25,000 and 35,000 low income students that are qualified to gain entrance into the nation's top universities each year, but do not even apply. By these standards, QuestBridge has served less than 4% of the students that they focus on.
Race and ethnicity
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From the 1950s to the 2010s, the United States higher education system was increasingly viewed as a vehicle for social mobility and economic equality. As a result, there was a clear struggle to try and open access to higher education for the wider population so that more individuals could benefit from this economic good. Programs like affirmative action were at the forefront of this struggle, to help under-represented racial groups gain greater access to higher education. By increasing access to diverse and minority populations, greater social mobility was expected. However, a 2016 report by the Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce demonstrated that progress had not yet been adequately made. The report made clear that higher education has been a source of increasing racial inequality in the United States. The authors, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, focused on Latinos and African American minority groups. Through their research they show that overall access for minority enrollment has increased at a greater rate than enrollment for white students, but this growth is heavily concentrated in the poorest, and least selective colleges and universities.
Growing inequality between universities has an effect on graduation rates and time to complete a degree for students. The study shows that more selective universities provide their students with better resources. The authors show that the 82 most selective colleges spend $27,900/student on average, while the least selective open access two- and four-year colleges (where Latinos and African Americans are over-represented) spend $6,000/student on average. Open-access colleges, are colleges that admit at least 80% of their students and typically include community colleges, for-profit schools, and some public universities. Unsurprisingly, graduation rates are the highest in the more selective universities, where more resources are available to students inside and outside of the universities. They further demonstrate that persistence and completion rates at more selective universities are higher regardless of race or ethnicity. The end product of this is the increased reproduction of educational inequalities across generations. Furthermore, consider that roughly 34% of African American and Hispanic students who earn bachelor's degrees at the top 468 colleges attain graduate degrees, compared with 23% who attend open-access colleges. The effect that top colleges have on minority students not only leads to better graduation rates for undergraduate students, but also makes the completion of a graduate education more likely.
This data presents a serious challenge to proponents of "mismatch" theory, which was advocated during the Supreme Court Case, Fisher v. University of Texas in 2013. It claims that affirmative action causes more harm than benefit, because it provides access opportunities to students that are not prepared well enough to succeed at more elite institutions. Proponents of "mismatch" theory argue that affirmative action should therefore be repealed, because it is not achieving its intended effect. This data shows that the opposite is true, in that many minority students are attending less selective universities, and are therefore not being given enough resources to succeed. These resources include, "substantial labor market advantages, including more than $2 million per student in higher lifetime earnings, and access to professional and managerial elite jobs, as well as careers that bring personal and social empowerment." The issue is not that they are attending more selective universities and failing, its that they are attending the least selective universities that are overcrowded and underfunded.
Race can also play a role in which students enroll in college. A 2007 study found that African Americans are more likely to delay enrolling in college. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 2003 and 2009 rates of immediate college enrollment increased for Asian Americans and whites, but not for African Americans. The 2011 Condition of Education study found that in 2008, 63% of college students were white, while 14% were African American and 12% were Hispanic. Minority groups tend to remain the most underrepresented at more selective universities. This is despite programs like affirmative action that seek to provide underrepresented students with greater access to colleges. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, African American students suffer the most in regards to under-representation at more selective universities. Consider that the cumulative percent change for African American students at open access universities has increased by 113.6% since 1994, but that at top tier universities it has barely changed, having gone down by 0.3%. At Harvard, 6.5% of undergraduates were black in 2013, while it was 7.4% in 1994. At universities focusing on bachelors, and graduate degrees African American enrollment in 2013 had only increased by 3% since 1994.
According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic students college enrollment has increased by 240% since 1996, more than their African American or White counterparts. However, this growth is similarly at the open access colleges and does not translate into enrollment at four-year colleges. A study by the Pew Research Center, claimed that "Young Hispanic college students are less likely than their white counterparts to enroll in a four-year college (56% versus 72%), they are less likely to attend a selective college, less likely to be enrolled in college full time, and less likely to complete a bachelor's degree." Given this information, it is clear that increased college enrollment may not mean that Hispanic students are reaping the benefits of completing a college degree.
According to Diverse Issues in Higher Education, the schools conferring the most bachelor's degrees to African Americans in 2015-16 were University of Phoenix, Ashford University, Georgia State University, and Grand Canyon University.
Race can play a part in a student's persistence rate in college: Drop-out rates are highest with the Native American and African American population, both greater than 50%. Caucasians and Asian Americans had the lowest dropout rates. Another issue related to race is faculty representation at universities. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, full-time faculty remain heavily white at universities across the country. In 2013, 78% of full-time faculty members nationwide were white.
In discussing student's access to education in the United States, one area of research has focused on the differences that exist between students entry and completion rates based on gender. In children born after 1960, more white women were graduating from college than white men, which was a change from children born before this time.
Bailey & Dynarski (2011) found that the increase in inequality in education between low and high income groups observed over the previous 30 years had been predominantly driven by rising educational attainment among women from high-income backgrounds. In 2010–11, 33 percent more bachelor's degrees were conferred to women than men, with the gender gap projected to increase to 37 percent by 2021–22.
Within higher-income families, women make up a greater percentage (15% compared to 7%) of this growth. While the largest gap of educational attainment between men and women is seen in the highest income group, women are attaining higher levels of education than men in every income group. This observation poses a unique and confusing problem: if educational attainment has a positive correlation to familial income, why are more women entering and completing college than men? Bailey and Dynarski proposed that the observed educational gap by gender may be due to differing incentives to accumulate human capital. Men and women may participate in what they term "segregated labor markets" and "asymmetric marriage markets," and perhaps, to make up for those perceived market differences, woman are more motivated to obtain higher levels of education.
The gap of educational attainment between men and women is starting at a young age and affecting students access to higher education later in life. According to Bailey & Dynarski, there are two main explanations for the gender differences in educational attainment and inequality. First, men and women respond in different and gender-specific ways to family and/or school circumstances, and second, the differences in circumstances by men and women of the same family income and race have shaped inequality in educational attainment for some time. More specifically, the bulk of primary and secondary teachers are female and women run most single-parent households. The absence of a strong male role model affects males differently from females. Studies by Bailey & Dynarski have shown that teachers provide role models to demographically similar students, and their unintended biases affect their interactions and assessments of their students.
It is estimated that 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school each year. These graduates have lived in the United States for more than 5 years and most were often brought to the United States by their parents as young children. This leaves the U.S. Government with the question of what rights to give the undocumented immigrants after their graduation, particularly with access to higher education. A 2010 study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) on undocumented immigrants and higher education:
Installing pathways to higher education and in-state tuition for undocumented students in the United States presents both opportunities and constraints in developing practices that promote social justice, equity, and equality. Those who are sympathetic to the challenges facing undocumented students may support opportunities to promote the potential of those who are deserving of incorporation and membership in U.S. society. On the other hand, proponents of tighter borders and tougher immigration laws may view all undocumented people, including model, hardworking young people, as "illegals" or temporary workers and consider them to be drains on the resources of society. This puts educational administrators in precarious positions since they are professionals who are trained to promote and support students in their pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement. Therefore, many professionals are left with little choice but to search for individuals and resources already established within outlaw cultures."
In 1996, the United States passed a law banning states from offering residency benefits to undocumented immigrants that they didn't then also offer to every U.S. citizen. This basically made it so that states could not offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, even if they technically qualified based on residency status. States have argued the clarity of this law and many have enacted their own laws allowing in-state tuition to be given on the claims that it is based on high school attendance and not explicitly residency. This law is especially important since undocumented immigrants are also unable to obtain governmental financial aid and are unable to legally work, leaving them without sources to help pay for out-of-state tuition.
The DREAM Act was introduced in 2001 and aims to give more access to higher education for undocumented immigrants by repealing the law 1996 law. It also aimed to set up pathways for students who obtain higher education to become legal residents. The act has been introduced in many states and many different times, but has still not been passed. Critics of the act argue that it encourages more undocumented immigration, that schools will engage in grade inflation so that border-line students can take advantage of the act, and that a financial burden could be placed on taxpayers. Proponents argue the opposite, emphasizing that giving the undocumented immigrants an opportunity at higher education means they will be more self-sufficient in the future, contributing more to taxes and relying less on state resources. They also claim that children should not be punished for the actions of their parents and that giving them this opportunity would encourage them to be contributing and law-abiding citizens. Whether this act would have positive effects on undocumented immigrants attending college is still hard to see since not many states have actually done it and the time span has not been enough for thorough research.
The 2010 UNLV study recommends key policy changes to support undocumented immigrants access to higher education.
In general, practitioners need to weigh opportunities against constraints and consider the potential opportunities to promote social justice, equality, and equity in higher education access. Rather than considering undocumented students as "illegals" and restricting their access to legitimate educational pathways, it is recommended that, at the very least, those in positions of power adopt an outlaw cultural framework to support the strengths inherent within diversity as well as pursue avenues of social justice for undocumented students who are seeking to access higher education to improve their future and secure permanent membership in U.S. society.
Rural, urban, and suburban
A slightly lower percentage of college-age Americans from rural areas go to college: in 2015, 67% from suburban high schools, 62% from urban high schools, and 59% from rural high schools. The difference is even larger for higher-income schools (73% suburban, 72% urban, 61% rural).
Cost and finances
College costs for individuals and their families may include tuition, room and board, textbook and supply costs, personal expenses, and transportation.
Tuition increases have outpaced inflation. Because schools are assured of receiving their fees no matter what happens to their students, they have felt free to raise their fees to very high levels, to accept students of inadequate academic ability, and to produce too many graduates in some fields of study. Despite the vast expense and economic distortions that result from student aid, the proportion of graduates who come from poor backgrounds has actually declined since 1970. Analyst Robert E. Wright predicted cost increases without matching increases in quality would continue until professors were encouraged to own colleges in private partnerships; he predicted that would not happen until barriers to entry are decreased and government education subsidies are paid directly to students instead of to colleges and universities. A report in The Economist criticized American universities for generally losing sight of how to contain costs. Analyst Jeffrey Selingo in the Chronicle of Higher Education blamed rising costs on unnecessary amenities such as private residence rooms, luxury dining facilities, climbing walls, and sometimes even so-called lazy rivers similar to ones found in amusement parks. The 2014 documentary Ivory Tower described colleges as participating in an "arms race" to provide the best luxury facilities, and asked whether college was worth the expense in an era of "predatory loan systems" and job scarcity and rampant inequality. One analyst argued that second-tier schools with Ivy League Envy had become "so obsessed with rising up the academic hierarchy" that they focused too heavily on research while neglecting undergraduate education, and argued that schools should embrace Internet technology and online software to streamline costs.
Another issue is the rising cost of textbooks. There are textbook exchanges for students who will accept a used text at a lower price. Lower priced alternatives offered by Flat World Knowledge are now available but have yet to make a significant impact on overall textbook prices.
One theory for the continual increase in tuition is that universities prioritize endowment growth over educational interests. A possible explanation for this is that universities are concerned with intergenerational equity for the benefit of future generations of students, as well as the overall benefit to society. This means that the universities will usually seek to grow their endowments to sustain their level of activity well into the future. Arguments against this justification mainly focus on the idea that the intergenerational equity theory does not accurately reflect the behavior of institutions with large endowments. Peter Conti-Brown, for example, describes how many of the elite universities cut their budgets during the recession despite sitting atop multibillion-dollar endowments, which were theoretically supposed to act as cushions during such economic downturns.
Still, tuition increases may not be completely the responsibility of the higher education institutions. Instead, an article written by Archibald and Feldman suggests that tuition increases simply reflect the increasing costs of producing higher education. According to the cost-disease theory, it would be difficult to achieve cuts in per-student cost without the deterioration of quality in the education. While the decision-making of college administrators does come into play, the argument is that there are more fundamental and economy-wide factors that result in cost increases. A general economic trend is that costs in service industries grow more rapidly than in manufacturing industries, and increase in higher education costs is simply a reflection of this phenomenon. Some universities describe being caught in a dilemma where they are pressured to offer broader curricula and improve facilities to attract new students on one hand, but on the other hand these universities must raise tuition to compensate for state spending cuts and rising expenses.
Annual undergraduate tuition varies widely from state to state, and many additional fees apply. Listed tuition prices generally reflect the upper bound that a student may be charged for tuition. In many cases, the "list price" of tuition – that is, the tuition rate broadcast on a particular institution's marketing platforms – may turn out to be different from the actual (or net) tuition charged per student. A student that has applied for institution-based funding will know his or her net tuition upon receipt of a financial aid package. Since tuition does not take into account other expenses such as the cost of living, books, supplies and other expenses, such additional amounts can cause the overall cost of college to exceed the tuition rate multiplied by the number of courses the student is planning to take.
In 2009, average annual tuition at a public university (for residents of the state) was $7,020. Tuition for public school students from outside the state is generally comparable to private school prices, although students can often qualify for state residency after their first year. Private schools are typically much higher, although prices vary widely from "no-frills" private schools to highly specialized technical institutes. Depending upon the type of school and program, annual graduate program tuition can vary from $15,000 to as high as $50,000. Note that these prices do not include living expenses (rent, room/board, etc.) or additional fees that schools add on such as "activities fees" or health insurance. These fees, especially room and board, can range from $6,000 to $12,000 per academic year (assuming a single student without children). Such fees are not at all government-regulated, allowing a theoretically enormous increase each year. While tuition is monitored to some degree in legislatures and is often publicly discussed, fees on the side are frequently overlooked in public opinion and regulatory policies. Although tuition costs have risen, the rising costs have had little effect on transfer rates and overall enrollment. In a study on effects of rising tuition costs, analysis revealed that the rising costs of colleges have "weak or no effects" on enrollment. Rising tuition costs have not deterred enrollment "as long as students believe the potential return of a college education is much greater than the cost".
In addition to tuition, living expenses, books, supplies and fees, students face a less-acknowledged opportunity cost in years of missed potential income. A high school educated person could expect to earn about $84,000 for four years of work; in choosing to attend and pay for college, an individual forgoes those earnings.
In 2010, community colleges cost an average of $2,544 per year for tuition and fees. A private four-year college cost an average of $26,273 annually for tuition and fees.
College costs are rising while state appropriations for aid are shrinking. This has led to debate over funding at both the state and local levels. From 2002 to 2004 alone, tuition rates at public schools increased by just over 14%, largely due to dwindling state funding. A more moderate increase of 6% occurred over the same period for private schools. Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees rose three times as fast as median family income, in constant dollars. In the 2012 fiscal year, state and local financing declined to $81.2 billion, a drop in funding compared to record-high funding in 2008 of $88 billion in a pre-recession economy.
To combat costs colleges have hired adjunct professors to teach. In 2008 these teachers cost about $1,800 per 3-credit class as opposed to $8,000 per class for a tenured professor. Two-thirds of college instructors were adjuncts, according to one estimate; a second estimate from NBC News in 2013 was that 76% of college professors were in "low-paying, part-time jobs or insecure, non-tenure positions," often lacking health insurance. There are differences of opinion on whether these adjuncts teach more or less effectively than regular tenured or tenure-track professors. There is some suspicion that student evaluation of adjuncts, along with doubts on the part of teachers about subsequent continued employment, can lead to grade inflation.
Additionally, schools are increasingly using price discrimination as a strategy across different programs to increase revenue (i.e., employing strategies like a for-profit business). Yet the school is still fundamentally different from a for-profit business entity in that it is restricted by its school mission. For example, a school may charge particular types of students (such as low-income or moderate-income students) less tuition in order to help them. Another example is merit-based aid, in which the school will grant high-achieving students money.
Because of the decrease in public funding, public research universities have tried to compensate for those losses by increasing tuition revenue by enrolling more out of state students. According to a 2011–12 survey the average in state tuition was $8,775 while the out of state tuition was $27,539. On average the increase in non resident enrollments has gone up from 20.7% of total freshman enrollment in 2003 to 24.7% in 2013. In some states the increase has been significantly higher, particularly in higher ranking universities. In the University of California Los Angeles the enrollment went up from 7.7% in 2003 to 28.5% in 2013. In state students that would have previously been accepted at that high ranking university where no longer able to attend. Aside from compensating for the decreases in funding, the increase in out of state admission has also allows universities to address the ever-present concern in rankings as they are able to increase the academic requirements for admission due to the rising number of applicants. In higher ranking universities the increases in out of state admissions has had a significant effect on admission of in state low income and underrepresented minority students.
Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford published a book-length study of admissions that found that an upper-middle-class white applicant was three times as likely to be admitted to an American college as a lower-class white with similar qualification. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has cited this as an example of how U.S. universities can exacerbate wealth inequality. A 2006 report by Future of Children, a collaboration of Princeton and the Brookings Institution, concluded that "the current process of admission to, enrollment in, and graduation from colleges and universities contributes to economic inequality as measured by income and wealth." According to Suzanne Mettler of Cornell, government policy towards higher education has an effect of deepening inequality and disadvantaging students from the lower classes.
Athletics have been increasingly subsidized by tuition. Fewer than one in eight of the 202 Division 1 colleges netted more money than they spent on athletics between 2005 and 2010. At the few money-making schools, football and sometimes basketball sales support the school's other athletic programs. Athletes, on average, cost six times what it cost to educate the non-athlete. Spending per student varied from $10,012 to $19,225; while the spending per athlete varied from $41,796 to $163,931.
The portion of state budget funding spent on higher education has decreased by 40% since 1978, while most tuition fees have significantly increased. Between 2000 and 2010, the cost of tuition and room and board at public universities increased by 37%. There is a misconception that there was no similar increase in financial aid to help cover the costs of tuition. This is incorrect. In 1965, $558 million was available for financial aid. In 2005 more than $129 billion was available. As college costs have risen, so has the amount of money available to finance a college education. However, the proportion of gift aid and self-help funding has shifted: loans and work make up a larger percentage of aid packages. During the early 1980s, higher education funding shifted from reliance on state and federal government funding to more family contributions and student loans. Pell Grants, which were created to offset the cost of college for low-income students, started funding more middle-class students, stretching the funds thinner for everyone. During the mid-1990s 34% of the cost for college was covered by the maximum offered Pell Grant, compared to 84% during the 1970s.
During Clinton's presidency, funding for higher education focused on creating tax benefits tied to attending college. These policies put less emphasis on developing grants to allow students to attend college. Some argued that this approach did not adequately provide aid to those students most in need. There was also a fear that tax deductions or credits would drive up tuition costs.
The federal government also began funding fewer grant programs and more loan programs, leaving students with higher amounts of debt. In 2003, almost 70% of federal student aid awarded was student loans, which was a much higher percentage than just a decade prior. the National Center for Education Statistics reported that during the 2007–08 school year, 66% of degree recipients borrowed money to complete their degree; 36% of these graduates had to borrow from state or private sources, averaging total loan amounts of $13,900; 95% of these loans were private. On average, a student borrowed $24,700 during the 2007–08 school year. One estimate of total debt of all ex-students in 2011 was $1 trillion. The economic troubles of the recent decade left higher education funding shifted toward other needs because higher education institutions can gain extra funds through raising tuition and private donations.
Policy changes in higher education funding raise questions about the impact on student performance and access to higher education. Early studies focused on social integration and a person's individual attributes as the factors for degree completion. More recent studies have begun to look at larger factors including state funding and financial support. It has been found that providing need-based aid proved to increase degree completion in 48 states. There has also been a positive correlation between providing merit-based aid and degree completion. As the level to qualify for state need-based aid is lowered, the probability of persistence increases. Low-income families now must pay more to attend college, making it harder for them to attain higher education. In 1980, low-income families used 13% of their income to pay for one year of college. In 2000, this proportion grew to 25 percent of their income, while high-income families used less than 5% of their income. Fully understanding how need and merit (non-need) aid is determined is critical to ensure greater access to higher education. It is clear that at both private and public colleges and universities family income has a major impact on need-based financial aid. As colleges and universities compete for students, the demarcation between merit-based aid and need-based aid is less clear. While there has been a traditional distinction between need-based and merit-based funding, recent trends indicate that these two categories are more blurred than their labels would suggest. Research confirms that merit-based financial aid often takes into account student need and vice versa.
Controversy has also risen regarding performance-based funding. Performance-based funding is a system in which the state's higher education budget is allocated to institutions by several measures to best determine allocation of funds. This system has been criticized due to the complexity of the measurements as well as the resulting changed environment and goals of campuses. Many have criticized performance-funding, noting an overemphasis of test scores without consideration of other possible measures.
A 2006 report by Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro indicated that financial aid to students in the 1990s held the strongest correlation with student SAT scores. The report was conducted in the interest of looking directly at the relationship between financial aid grants and various factors, with specific focus on the variables of family income level and SAT scores and minor focus on personal variables, such as race and gender. The reason these factors were given greater consideration was that, according to McPherson and Schapiro, the information was readily available and led to a more meaningful comparison across students than variables like high school GPA. The report also made clear that it ignored the distinctions that universities make between "need-based" and "merit-based" aid. McPherson and Schapiro argued, "Although it is commonplace to track the importance of merit as opposed to need-based aid based on the responses given by college and university administrators on survey forms, we have argued that the distinction between 'need-based' and 'non-need-based' student grants is a slippery one." The findings in the report indicated that "the principle of awarding financial aid strictly in relation to ability to pay is becoming an increasingly less important factor in the distribution of aid in America's private colleges and universities."
Some low-income students have to work and study at the same time. This may adversely impact their performance in school.
Most discussions on how higher education funding is determined have focused on the economic and demographic influences; however, according to a 2010 study on the relationship between politics and state funding, political factors influence higher education funding. First, as the number of interest groups for higher education in a state grows, so does the amount of money given to higher education. Second, states with a more liberal political ideology give more funding to higher education. Third, governors with more control over the state budget tend to award less money to higher education. This is attributed to higher education funding being considered to be tradable with other programs. Fourth, a more professional state legislature correlates with more funding for higher education. (Professional in here refers to a legislature that acts much as the U.S. Congress does in that members have many staff members and spend more time in session.) Fifth, the more diverse a state population becomes, the less support there will be for higher education funding.
When college does not pay off
Most college students go to college to develop skills for a lucrative career. But some schools have negative returns on investment. Schools with limited job placement programs, career counseling, and internships are more likely to have limited returns.
Paying for college can hurt retirement outcomes for parents of college students. In a Barron's article titled "How Your Kids Can Ruin Your Retirement — and How to Make Sure They Don't", Reshma Kapadia offers advice to parents on how they can ensure that higher education for their children does not result in diminished retirement quality.
For-profit schools and visa mills
From 1972 to 2009, there was rapid growth of for-profit schools. Government funding in 1972 and government deregulation in 1998 fueled a dramatic rise in for-profit college enrollment. Government oversight and scrutiny since 2010 as well as competition from non-profit and public education has led to a dramatic decrease in enrollment.
At its peak, The University of Phoenix was the largest US for-profit college, with an enrollment of more than 500,000 students nationwide. Other large institutions included Devry University, ITT Technical Institute, the Art Institutes, Kaplan University, Ashford University, Colorado Technical Institute, Ashford University, Strayer University, Lincoln Tech, and Walden University.
Altogether, at their peak, for-profit colleges enrolled about 11% of the students, but created approximately 47% of all the student loan defaults.
Critics of for-profit colleges have pointed to the heavy dependence on federal loans and grants to students, the low student completion rate, and the inability of the majority of graduates to pay their student loans because they failed to secure high-paying jobs.
For-profit colleges have aggressively recruited among military veterans, and in 2010 received 36% of all the tuition aid paid by the federal government. The University of Phoenix received 88% of its income from federal aid to students; the maximum allowed is 90%.
Visa mills are colleges with low standards that recruit foreigners. The politically conservative Center for Immigration Studies has identified 55 US schools that it calls "the very dregs of higher education in this country".
Student loan debt
The amount of debt that students have after graduation has become an issue of concern, especially given the weak job market after 2008. Nearly all loans are financed by the federal government at an artificially low rate, but students sometimes obtain private loans (which generally have higher interest rates and start accumulating interest immediately).
Several studies and news reports have detailed the effects of student loan debt on reducing first time home buying and child bearing—and ultimately slowing down the US economy.    Some students have turned to prostitution to avoid college debt.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education announced stricter eligibility rules for federal financing of loans to student at for-profit schools, which were experiencing higher default rates. Student loans totaled more than $1.3 trillion, averaging $25,000 each for 40 million debtors. The debtors average age was 33. Forty percent of the debt was owed by people 40 or older.
In a 2017 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the researchers found that 27% of all student loans resulted in default within 12 years. Children in poor families were particularly vulnerable, still maintaining an average balance that was 91% of the original loan.
In 2018, a poll by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting found "an overwhelming concern among voters regarding the level of student debt."
Student loan debt groups
Six years after entering a four-year program, 58% of students at public colleges will have graduated, 65% of students at private non-profit colleges will have graduated, while 27% of students at for-profit colleges will have graduated. Six-year graduation rates of four-year programs depend to a great extent on a college's entrance requirements, ranging from 89% at those which accept less than one-quarter of applicants to 36% at those with an open admissions policy.
Grade inflation has been a pernicious aspect of American college life since the 1960s. Between 1965 and 1975, GPAs sharply increased so that the most common letter grade went from a long-standing C to a B. Since the mid-1990s it has been an A. On average, private colleges have been more subject to this phenomenon than public colleges, as have the humanities compared to STEM courses, post-graduate courses compared to undergraduate courses, and courses taught by women compared to courses taught by men. Although standardized tests are certainly imperfect measures of aptitude, comparing trends in scoring with those in grades is revealing. Unlike GPAs, overall test scores have remained relatively steady over time, demonstrating that the grade inflation is artificial. Graduate literacy has also remained constant. A graduate may take pride in having a straight-A transcript, but his or her potential employers know that factors such as internships, work experience, choice of major, volunteering, choice of extracurricular activity and relevance of coursework are all more reliable indicators of aptitude and attitude.
In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college studied for about twenty-four hours per week, while his modern counterpart in all demographic subgroups averages only fourteen hours per week. This cannot be explained by technological innovations such as the internet, since most of the decline predates the innovations that are most relevant to education. The most plausible explanation for these findings is a general decline in academic standards. Longitudinal data indicate that the few students who take full academic advantage of their time in college earn more in the long run.
In Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa draw on transcript data, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and survey responses from more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions in their first semester and again at the end of their second year. Their analysis reveals that 45% of these students demonstrated no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.
Financial pressures have made college administrations increasingly reluctant to lose the tuition obligations of students who might otherwise be failed or expelled, and to fill their classrooms they must accept students who will certainly not be able to complete a four-year degree in four years. Disruptive, immature or otherwise irresponsible behavior on the part of some of these students can impede the learning experiences of other students.
In addition to the skills that are specific to any degree, employers in any profession are looking for evidence of critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, teamworking skills, information literacy, ethical judgment, decision-making skills, fluency in speaking and writing in English, problem solving skills, and a wide knowledge of liberal arts and sciences. However, employers consider the typical graduate to be more or less deficient in all of these areas.
Research since the 1970s has consistently found that professors are more liberal and Democratic than the general population. Surveys conducted in the last 10 years indicate that between 44–62% faculty self-identify as liberal, while 9–18% self-identify as conservative. Conservative self-identification is higher in two-year colleges than other categories of higher education but has been declining overall. Those in natural sciences, engineering, and business were less liberal than those in the social sciences and humanities. A 2005 study found that liberal views had increased compared to the older studies. 15% in the survey described themselves as right of center. While the humanities and the social sciences are still the most left leaning, 67% of those in other fields combined described themselves as left of center. In business and engineering, liberals outnumber conservatives by a 2:1 ratio. The study also found that more women, practicing Christians, and Republicans were employed to teach at lower ranked schools (such as two-year community colleges or medium-sized universities) than would be expected from their professional accomplishments, measured objectively. One conservative critic has suggested that liberal "Groupthink" explains why liberals appear to be overrepresented.
A 2007 study criticized some recent surveys, such as the above 2005 study, on methodological grounds as well as being motivated by conservative concerns. It also pointed to the influence of conservative think tanks outside academia. In its own survey, it found that while conservatives were rare, there was a large centrist group between those self-identifying as liberals or conservatives. More moderate views were more common in younger professors, although also in this age group liberals were several times more common than conservatives. The age group with most liberal professors were the professors who were teenagers or young adults in the radical 1960s. Of all surveyed, 3% identified themselves as Marxists with the highest numbers being in social sciences (17%) and humanities (5%).
A 2011 study disagreed with younger professors being more moderate and instead argued that the average view may shift further left in the future. The study also found that the years of college education had little effect on the political view of undergraduates. There was little evidence that right leaning professors were treated poorly. Regarding the cause of the apparent liberal overrepresentation, it found that conservative students preferred to major in fields leading to immediate employment, such as hotel management or accounting, rather than further studies. Self-selection has also been suggested by others as the main explanation.
In a 2011 nationwide study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) of UCLA, it found that compared to its previous 2008 study of professors nationwide, that more professors in 2011 self-identified as liberal (50.3%) compared to in the 2008 study (47%). In the study, 62.7% of responding professors self-identify as being politically liberal or "far left". According to an article published in Academe, the impact of having more liberal professors meant that fewer conservative students were likely to pursue advanced or doctoral degrees. According to Stephen Hayward, the fewer conservative professors results in fewer conservative students being mentored and supported to seek graduate level education, creating a "self-reinforcing" cycle.
In one study the researchers sent out e-mails to graduate studies directors at top ranked departments. They claimed to be an undergraduate asking for guidance regarding if this was a suitable department. The e-mails differed regarding which presidential campaign the undergraduate had worked for. There was no statistical difference in the replies. On the other hand, a survey of sociology professors found that one quarter stated that they would be more likely to vote for hiring a declared Democrat and less likely to vote for hiring a declared Republican. Around 40% stated that they would be less likely to vote for hiring an Evangelical or a member of the National Rifle Association. Another survey found a similar situation for humanities and other social sciences professors.[improper synthesis?]
A 2007 poll found that 58% of Americans thought that college professors' political bias was a "serious problem". This varied depending on the political views of those asked. 91% of "very conservative" adults agreed compared with 3% of liberals.
In 2012, Tilburg University psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers conducted anonymous random surveys of 800 members of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and found that 85% of respondents self-identified as liberal and 6% self-identified as conservative. Respondents that self-identified as either conservative or moderate were found to be significantly more reluctant to express their political views to their colleagues for fear of negative consequences, and were more likely to believe that their colleagues would actively discriminate against them on the basis of their political beliefs. Self-identified conservative respondents were also more likely to feel that there was a hostile climate directed towards their political beliefs, while self-identified liberal respondents did not believe that there was a hostile climate directed towards conservative beliefs, and the more liberal the respondent self-identified as being, the less likely they were to believe that there was a hostile climate.
Also, the respondents were asked four questions assessing (along a 1-to-7 integer scale) their personal stated willingness to discriminate against conservatives, along with how willing they thought other members of their academic department would be to discriminate against conservatives. For all but one of the questions where the respondents were speaking for themselves, and for every question where the respondent was speaking for the rest of their department, the statistical mean for the responses was more than a standard deviation above the lowest option ("not at all" willing to discriminate). The percentage of responses from the middle to the highest option ("somewhat" to "very much" willing to discriminate) ranged from 14 to 44% for each question whether respondents were speaking for themselves or for their departmental colleagues, and the highest percentages for both were to the question about hiring a conservative job applicant in their academic department if the applicant was equally qualified with a liberal applicant. Also, the more liberal the respondent self-identified as being, the more they reported being willing to discriminate against conservatives on each question.
In January 2015, a major literature review co-written by psychologists José L. Duarte, Jarret T. Crawford, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim, Philip E. Tetlock and sociologist Charlotta Stern summarized numerous studies of how academic psychology has little ideological diversity, that the ratio of liberal-to-conservative or Democratic-to-Republican professors has dramatically increased since 1990, that the disparity is undermining the quality of research in psychology, and that the main causes of the lack of ideological diversity are self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination. In 2014, survey data from HERI indicated that the ratio of liberal-to-conservative college professors increased from 2:1 in 1995 to roughly 5:1 in 2014.
In 2016, psychologists Bill von Hippel and David Buss surveyed 335 members of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (along a 1-to-11 integer scale) and found that 89.3% of respondents self-identified as liberal, 8.3% self-identified as centrist or moderate, and 2.5% self-identified as conservative. 94.7% of respondents voted for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, 1.2% of respondents voted for Mitt Romney, and 4% of respondents voted for other candidates. After averaging the scores of the respondents on nine major political issues, 96% of respondents were categorized as left of center, 3.7% were categorized as centrist or moderate, and 0.3% were categorized as conservative.
In September 2016, a replication and extension of the 2012 Inbar and Lammers study conducted by psychologists Nathan Honeycutt and Laura Freberg surveyed 618 faculty members of four California State University campuses and confirmed the previous finding of a hostile climate towards conservative professors in academic psychology departments, but also extended their study to 76 other academic departments spanning agricultural, business, education, arts and letters, engineering, and science colleges and found that there are sizable percentages of professors willing to discriminate against conservative academics in every academic department that they surveyed.
Student conservative groups, free speech, and hate speech
Turning Point USA is a conservative youth group formed by Charlie Kirk in 2012. The organization has a presence on hundreds of US campuses. In 2016, Turning Point USA began publishing its Professor Watchlist to expose faculty who they claim "discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." Charlie Kirk, TPUSA's president, has criticized college campuses as "islands of totalitarianism" filled with liberal students and faculty members who force their worldview upon those around them. Polls by Pew and Gallup in 2017 indicate that this belief is common among political conservatives.
In December 2018, the University of California, Berkeley settled a free speech lawsuit filed by the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America's Foundation, accusing the university of discriminating against speakers with conservative views. Under the settlement, Berkeley will modify its procedures for handling "major events", which typically draw hundreds of people, and agreed not to charge "security" fees for a variety of activities, including lectures and speeches. It will also pay $70,000 to cover the legal costs of the plaintiffs.
On March 21, 2019, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that would protect free speech on campus. According to President Trump, "Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans..." He added that "Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti–First Amendment institutions...."
While many private liberal arts colleges are located in the Midwest and Northeast, population growth of 18-year-olds is strongest in the South and Southwest, making it more difficult to attract potential students to "fly halfway across the country" to get a degree, according to Jeffrey Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Skepticism about higher education
A 2017 poll funded by House Majority PAC found that white working-class voters were skeptical about higher education. The key findings: 57% said a college degree "would result in more debt and little likelihood of landing a good-paying job." 83% said a college degree was "no longer any guarantee of success in America."
Declining accessibility and high cost
According to an analysis of social mobility and higher education in the US by Equality of Opportunity, "colleges that oﬀered many low-income students pathways to success are becoming less accessible over time."
According to a Public Agenda poll, only 43% of Americans say private, nonprofit universities and colleges are worth the cost.
Student debt crisis
While higher education has provided value to tens of millions of Americans, one of its dysfunctions is rapidly growing student loan debt that may take a person decades to repay, even if they never graduate.
Several student debt groups have been created since 2014, after the Debt Collective paid off student loans for 3,700 Everest College students. The groups include "I Am Ai," an organization that offers support and advocacy for student debtors who attended the Art Institutes.
Strike Debt Bay Area in the San Francisco, California, bay area has worked to promote a Public Bank of Oakland and a major study has been done and a bill written to smooth the path to reality. Strike Debt Portland has given scholarships for community college to high school graduates who were required to write an application paper on what student debt would mean to their futures. Strike Debt Portland is working on reverse scholarships for parents and grandparents who are having their Social Security and disability checks garnished for student loan debt, much of which is from co-signing on a child or grandchild's student loan. The goal is to help low-income seniors with a small scholarship; but also to use the scholarships to gain media coverage in order to completely stop the garnishment of checks, and to publicize the great need for student loan debt forgiveness and the ability to file for bankruptcy.
Ending affirmative action
According to multiple 2017 sources, the Trump administration's Department of Justice will be conducting investigations to ensure that African Americans and Latinos are not favored over whites and Asians.
In a 2019 Pew poll, 73 percent of a representative sample of Americans said that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions.
Alcohol and drug abuse
According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, "more than one-third of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 engaged in binge drinking in the past month; about 1 in 5 used an illicit drug in the past month." The report added that "on an average day during the past year, 2,179 full-time college students drank alcohol for the first time, and 1,326 used an illicit drug for the first time." 
Campus sexual assault is a common and under-reported crime. Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. There is concern that colleges have been overly aggressive in enforcing Title IX regulations. They have empowered investigators who routinely presume the guilt of suspects, assign the man full responsibility for the outcome of any social interaction, and minutely regulate personal relationships. The Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era measures so as to respond to these concerns.
Student poverty and hunger
Research by Sara Goldrick-Rab and others found that more than half of all community-college students surveyed struggle with food insecurity. A follow up study found more that a third of college students don't always have enough to eat and lack stable housing. Nine percent of those surveyed were homeless.
Higher education and mental health
Recent studies suggest that the stress of college negatively affects the mental health of undergraduate and graduate students.  In an analysis of 165 studies and news stories, researchers at North Carolina State and Penn State University found the most common contributing factors to students' mental health challenges were race, violence and sexual assault.
An American Psychiatric Association survey "Healthy Minds" found that the rate of mental health treatment among college students increased from 19 percent in 2007 to 34 percent by 2017. The percentage of students who reported lifetime diagnoses increased from 22 percent to 36 percent. The prevalence of depression and suicidality also increased, while stigma about mental health decreased. The web-based survey consisted of 155,026 students from 196 college campuses. 
The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that by 2025 California will face a shortage of one million college degree and certificate holders to fuel its workforce. In community colleges, 2.4 million students enrolled for the 2015–2016 academic year, with 43.61% identifying as Hispanic or Latino. Latino college students are significantly more like to have a greater history of depression than other ethnic groups. Mental health stigma is a contributing factor of anxiety in Latino college students and include having common beliefs such as those with mental illness being perceived as dangerous, not willing to recover, and at fault for their own illness. A reason study states that The study reveals that the sample of Latino students perceive that budget cuts are affecting them in specific ways.This includes diminishing access, reduction of support services, and delay in completion of their educational objectives. Research shows that through advancing a model of intersectionality that recognizes how social identities are constituted within multiple arenas of social interactions, then it helps in addressing how the relationships between Latino social identities shape Latino educational outcomes and educational equity.
- Academic ranks in the United States
- Association of American Universities
- Campus carry in the United States
- Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education
- Center for Excellence in Higher Education
- College admissions in the United States
- Education in the United States
- For-profit colleges
- G. I. American Universities
- Higher education bubble in the United States
- Hispanic-serving institution
- Historically black colleges and universities
- History of education in the United States
- History of education in the United States: Bibliography
- Land-grant university
- Liberal arts colleges in the United States
- List of Roman Catholic universities and colleges in the United States
- Men's colleges in the United States
- Morrill Land-Grant Acts
- National Collegiate Athletic Association
- Pell grant
- Student debt
- Transfer admissions in the United States
- Women's colleges in the United States
- Work college
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