College & Workforce Readiness

Census Tidbits: More High School Sophomores, Fewer College Freshmen

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 29, 2014 2 min read
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Early high school dropouts continue to decline, but late dropouts are on an uptick and the college enrollment rate has dropped for the second year in a row, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data.

The Census Bureau reported the status of school enrollment at all levels, from preschool through postsecondary, comparing data both from its own American Community Survey and Current Population Survey as well as administrative data from the National Center on Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data. Among other demographic changes, it found, non-Hispanic white students made up 54 percent of students across all levels of schooling in 2013, but only 40 percent of students in preschool—further evidence of the burgeoning minority-majority in K-12 public schools.

While different data sets generally agree, there are some differences when it comes to the high school population, with the Census showing higher enrollment in upper grades and NCES reporting higher 9th-grade enrollment. As the chart below shows, there was a sharp increase in 11th- and 12th-grade dropouts in the last few years.

The bureau attributed some of the change in part to students being confused about whether they were “enrolled” in 12th grade or had “attained” a 12th-grade education (which, if true, doesn’t inspire confidence in their graduation readiness, in any case.) Analysts also suggested that students who lack credits to be considered upperclassmen may be reporting the grade they think they are in by years in school, rather than credits earned.

That may be, but the rise in late high school dropout numbers also coincides with a two-year, nearly 1 million-student decline in college enrollment. More than 4.2 million American high school graduates between the ages of 15 and 24 were “disconnected youth,” neither enrolled in school nor working, last year. In 2013, 5.3 million students were enrolled in two-year colleges, 10.5 million in four-year colleges, and 3.7 million in graduate school.

The drop in 2013 was about equally split between students 21 and younger and 25 and older, 261,000 and 247,000, respectively. While 4-year college enrollment saw an uptick of 1 percent, two-year degree programs, which make up the majority of colleges, saw a 10 percent enrollment drop from 2012 to 2013 alone.

“The dropoff in total college enrollment the last two years follows a period of expansion: Between 2006 and 2011, college enrollment grew by 3.2 million,” said Kurt Bauman, the chief of the Census Bureau’s education and social stratification branch, in a statement on the data. “This level of growth exceeded the total enrollment increase of the previous 10 years combined (2.0 million from 1996 to 2006).”

Even the steady growth of Hispanic college students, which continued as other groups trailed off, stuttered in 2013. Now nearly 1 million Hispanic students between 15 and 24 were disconnected both school and work.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.