College Enrollment Rate Increases, but Financial Challenges Bring Uncertainty

(November 2008) Higher education in the United States is increasingly out of reach for many young adults. Over the past decade, tuition costs at public four-year institutions have risen by 4.2 percent per year after inflation. The annual cost at a four-year private institution has risen from $9,903 in 1979 to $25,143 in 2008 (measured in 2008 dollars).1 The average graduate leaves college with over $19,000 of debt.


Anxiety over rising college tuition costs combined with the current financial crisis have made access to college education a major public issue. Access to higher education is increasingly difficult for lower-income families, yet a college degree is more important than ever in today’s global economy. By 2020, the United States may face a shortage of 14 million workers with college-level skills. Twenty-two of the 30 fastest-growing career fields require some postsecondary education, yet two-thirds of young adults from poor families do not get a college education.2


President-elect Barack Obama has promised to make access to higher education a central component of his administration’s education policy. He has pledged to make college more affordable through a new American Opportunity Tax Credit that will ensure that the first $4,000 of college tuition is free for most Americans. Recent initiatives by nongovernmental organizations are also expanding access to higher education. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has launched a program to double the number of low-income young adults who earn postsecondary degrees by working with educational institutions and administering grants. The National College Advising Corps places college graduates as advisers in low-income high schools in an attempt to increase the number of low-income and underrepresented youth in postsecondary education in the United States.


What does recent data say on college enrollment? KidsCount, an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation with technical support from PRB, compiles data on various indicators of child well-being in the United States. Despite the rising costs of tuition in recent years, the percentage of young adults ages 18 to 24 who are enrolled in or have completed college has actually risen from 36 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2006. Rhode Island and Massachusetts, at 58 percent, were tied for the highest rates in 2006, while Nevada had the lowest rate at 30 percent. High poverty and immigration rates may account for the discrepancies between states.


But while college enrollment rates have increased in recent years, the percentage of high school graduates ages 25 to 29 who have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher has remained constant at around 27 percent to 28 percent since 2000. Arkansas has the lowest rate in 2006 at 18 percent while Massachusetts has the highest at 43 percent.


Access to Higher Education in the United States, 2000 — 2006



2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Young adults ages 18 to 24 enrolled in or completed college (percentage) 36 37 38 39 40 41 45
High school graduates ages 25 to 29 who have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher (percentage) 28 28 28 28 29 28 27

Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, “KidsCount Data Center” (, accessed Nov. 17, 2008).


From increasing tuition costs and debt to declining levels of student grants, young adults from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds face a combination of financial challenges to attending college. Given the severe economic downtown, leaner family finances and higher unemployment may further complicate the task of the Obama administration and organizations working to expand access to higher education for American youth.


Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.




  1. College Board, “Trends in College Pricing 2008,” accessed online at, on Nov. 14, 2008.
  2. Gates Foundation, “Postsecondary Education,” accessed online at, on Nov. 14, 2008.