The report spurred a flurry of commentary and examinations of patterns of enrollment. What was often missing, though, was full historical context. As it turns out, this is a fairly subtle change compared with how college attendance evolved over the past century. Or even over the past 50 years.
Consider the evolution of educational attainment since the mid-1970s, as reflected in the (now biennial) General Social Survey (GSS). The graph below (modeled heavily on a longer-term one from data visualization expert Gregg Liddick) shows the decreasing density in the population of those without any college education over the past five decades. (The graph shows three-year averages.) Now, most Americans, men and women, have at least some college experience. Then, only about a quarter did.
At bottom, similar data is shown as a traditional line graph. A third of men and women didn’t even have high school degrees, according to the GSS average in 1975. Now, about a third have college degrees. Notice, though, that the percentage of Americans with college degrees has flattened since 2005. From 2000 to 2004, an average of 29 percent of men reported having degrees, as did 25 percent of women. From 2014 to 2018, those figures increased to 31 percent and 32 percent, respectively.
This GSS data is somewhat rough and reflects the entire population. It’s useful to remember that the population itself is shifting, as baby boomers increasingly age into retirement. That’s a large segment of the population that really helped initiate the adult-education phenomenon (in part encouraged by colleges struggling economically after the boomers moved out of prime college-attendance years) that is no longer availing itself of higher education and, therefore, constraining the density of graduates. (America is getting older, and older Americans are less likely to go to college.) It’s also the case that colleges are facing what one educator described to me earlier this year as an “enrollment cliff,” as the number of college-age Americans declines.
If we look at actual enrollment data from the Education Department, you can see both the slowdown in enrollment and, even before the pandemic, the flattening of the number of both men and women entering college. You can also see clearly that the number of young men attending college flattened in the mid-1970s — in part because there was no longer the side benefit of avoiding the Vietnam draft. (This insight comes from the Wall Street Journal’s Josh Mitchell, who’s written a book about the history of student loans.) Before that, you can see the big surge in attendance that accompanied the emergence of the baby boom.
The bottom graph here shows the percentage of women relative to the entire student population. As you can see, it sits just shy of 60 percent — specifically, at 57.1 percent — where it was projected in 2020 to remain for the next decade. That women made up 59.5 percent of attendees last year, according to the Journal’s data, in that light seems like a less dramatic shift, though it does reflect a nearly five-point swing in the gap between the genders (women up 2.4 points, men down 2.4).
We don’t really know what this means. We do know that college graduates, particularly White ones, have been trending more heavily Democratic, a trend that predated former president Donald Trump. We know, too, that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes, but that college debt is a competing and more immediate economic consideration. We don’t know, though, whether this deceleration among men is a long-term trend or even, in the grand scheme of things, a significant one.
As I’d mentioned: It is an uncertain time.