College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Risks Falling Behind In College-Participation Rate

By Sean Cavanagh — October 08, 2003 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Despite steadily increasing college enrollments nationwide, higher education participation in the United States is stagnating compared with other developed countries, a study released last week has found.

“Closing the College Participation Gap: A National Summary” is available from the Education Commission of the States’ Center for Community College Policy. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Efforts to boost postsecondary access have been undermined by high dropout rates, poor participation among low-income and minority students, and state budget cuts, according to the report by the Education Commission of the States.

By making only modest gains over time, the United States risks falling further behind other industrialized nations, such as Canada, South Korea, and Sweden, that have taken aggressive steps to help students pay for college and to prepare them for it academically, concludes the report, “Closing the College Participation Gap.”

“We’re sort of in a holding pattern, compared with some other nations,” said Sandra S. Ruppert, a program director for the Denver-based education policy organization and the author of the report.

Rather than focusing on the raw number of students enrolling in higher education, which the study’s authors say can produce misleading statistics, the ECS report compares college access by examining “participation rates.” Those estimates measure the proportion of the population of different ages securing either high school or college diplomas.

See Also...

See the accompanying chart, “Educational Attainment.”

In 1980, 66 percent of the U.S. adult population 25 years and older had finished high school, and 16 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree, the report says. Today, those figures are 80 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Judged historically, today’s proportions reflect a relative stagnation in college-degree attainment, the study concludes.

Equally troubling, according to the ECS, are findings that today’s 25- to 34-year-olds are less likely to have either a high school diploma or a college degree than older age groups. Baby boomers— people born between 1946 and 1964—are being replaced by a generation that is both smaller in number and no better educated. That trend has “chilling implications” for U.S. economic productivity, the ECS found.

According to the study, 17.3 million people in the United States are at least 18 years old and are currently enrolled in college. If trends continue, there will be a net enrollment increase of 2.3 million, or almost 13 percent, by 2015.

The United States would need a net enrollment gain of more than 8 million by 2015 to meet the college-participation levels projected for the best-performing states in the country, the report says.

Colleges and K-12

In evaluating the United States’ performance internationally, the ECS drew from data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group of 30 industrialized nations.

In 2000, the OECD found that the United States was tied for 13th place among developed nations in the percentage of its population that entered postsecondary education. While the United States dominates in the proportion of adults ages 25 to 64 who have completed high school, other countries have made greater strides in the educational attainment of their younger populations, the ECS report says.

David A. Longanecker, the executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in Boulder, Colo., said he hoped the ECS study would offer policymakers a more accurate picture of college access, and the risks the United States faces in slipping behind other nations.

Promoting college access is “part of a pipeline,” said Mr. Longanecker. “Part of it is academic preparation, part of it is culture, part of it is finance.”

The ECS study found that college participation varied greatly among states. Alaska’s participation rate among 18- to 24-year olds was 19.2 percent; Rhode Island’s was one of the highest, at 47.7 percent.

States with the highest levels of college participation tended to provide the greatest amount of state-based financial aid to needy students, the report found.

North Carolina is one state that’s tackling the problem head-on. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced last week that it will completely pay for tuition and room and board expenses of qualified low-income freshmen.

The $1.38 million Carolina Covenant program will start in the fall of 2004 for the incoming freshman class. About 8 percent of the university’s 281 freshmen this fall came from low-income families.

Annual in- state tuition for the university is $4,072, and the total annual cost of attending UNC-Chapel Hill is approximately $13,000.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Management Webinar
Build a Digitally Responsive Educational Organization for Effective Digital-Age Learning
Chart a guided pathway to digital agility and build support for your organization’s mission and vision through dialogue and collaboration.
Content provided by Bluum
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Drive Instruction With Mastery-Based Assessment
Deliver the right data at the right time—in the right format—and empower better decisions.
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
How Does Educator Well-Being Impact Social-Emotional Awareness in Schools?
Explore how adult well-being is key to promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors for students. Get strategies to reduce teacher stress.
Content provided by International Baccalaureate

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says 12th Graders Took Harder Courses and Got Higher GPAs, But Test Scores Fell. What Gives?
A federal study finds that improvements in high school students' course-taking and GPAs did not lead to higher NAEP scores.
2 min read
Image of data.
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion 5 Ways Rural School Leaders Can Create Workforce Opportunities for Students
The key to offering high-quality, work-based learning opportunities to students in rural areas is community building.
Charles V. Khoury
5 min read
Screen Shot 2022 01 26 at 7.08.02 AM
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says The COVID Academic Slide Could Be Worse Than Expected
Across grades, subjects, and schools, lost learning is adding up for students, new studies find.
4 min read
Image of a line moving from point A in a disrupted path.
Serhii Brovko/iStock/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness Spotlight Spotlight on Inspiring Innovation Through STEM Education
This Spotlight will empower you on ways to include more students of color, locate gifted students in unexpected places, and more.