Higher education in the United States

Education in the United States
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Higher education in the United States is an optional final 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 4,726 Title IV degree-granting institutions, either colleges or universities in the country.[1] These may be public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, or community colleges. High visibility issues include greater use of the Internet, such as massive open online courses, competency-based education, cutbacks in state spending, rapidly rising tuition and increasing student loans.[2]

Strong research and funding have helped make American colleges and universities among the world's most prestigious, making them particularly attractive to international students, professors and researchers in the pursuit of academic excellence.[3]

Unlike Tertiary education system of UK (and in addition Australia), American education is unique in the world to place strong emphasis on Liberal Arts education in its higher education curriculum.[4]


As of 2012, the latest figures available in 2015, the US has a total of 4,726 Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions: 3,026 4-year institutions and 1,700 2-year institutions.[1] The US had 21 million students in higher education, roughly 5.7% of the total population.[5] About 13 million of these students were enrolled full-time which was 81,000 students lower than 2010.[5]:table 224

A US Department of Education longitudinal survey of 15,000 high school students in 2002, and again in 2012 at age 27, 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.[6][7]

Types of colleges and universities

Harvard University: Harvard Yard with freshman dorms in the background.

Colleges and universities in the U.S. vary in terms of goals: some may emphasize a vocational, business, engineering, or technical curriculum (like polytechnic universities and land-grant universities) while others may emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above, being a comprehensive university.

In the US, the term "college" refers to either 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.

The Great Dome of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a university adopting the polytechnic university model.

Almost all colleges and universities are coeducational. During a dramatic transition in the 1970's, all but a handful of men's colleges started accepting women. Over 80 percent of the women's colleges of 1960's have closed or merged, leaving fewer than 50 in operation. Over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) operate, both private (such as Morehouse College) and public (such as Florida A&M).

Higher education has led to the creation of accreditation organizations, independent of the government, to vouch for the quality of competing degrees. The accreditation agencies rate universities and colleges 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.[8] Non-accredited institutions exist, such as Bible colleges, but the students are not eligible for federal loans.

Community colleges

Community colleges are often, though, not always two-year colleges. They have open admissions, with generally lower tuition than other state or private schools. Graduates receive the associate's degree such as an Associate of Arts (A.A.) upon graduating. Many students earn an associate's degree at a two-year institution, before transferring to a four-year institution to study another two years to earn a bachelor's degree.[9]

Four-year colleges usually have a larger number of students, offer a greater range of studies, and provide the bachelor's degree, mostly the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.). They are either primarily undergraduate institutions (i.e. Liberal Arts Colleges) or the undergraduate institution of a university (such as Harvard College and Yale College).

The DeSeversky Mansion on the Old Westbury campus of New York Institute of Technology.

Liberal arts colleges

Four-year institutions in the U.S. emphasizing the liberal arts are liberal arts colleges, entirely undergraduate institutions and stand-alone. They traditionally emphasize interactive instruction, although 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. These colleges encourage a high level of teacher-student interaction, at the center of which are 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, 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.


Saint Anselm College, a New England liberal arts college

Universities are research-oriented educational institutions which provide both undergraduate and graduate programs. For historical reasons, some universities such as Boston College, Dartmouth College, and 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.[10]

Public California State University, Office of the Chancellor in Long Beach, California

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, whereas 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. As is common in this scheme, Purdue categorizes both its undergraduate students (and faculty and programs) and its post-graduate students (and faculty and programs) via this scheme of decomposition, being 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.[11][12]

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. Among these, some are secular while 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.

Student funding

The Main Building on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin

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 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).[13][14] This can turn some of the most prestigious institutions into the cheapest options for low-income students.[15] 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).[16] Loans can be obtained publicly through government sponsored loan programs or privately through independent lending institutions.

Grant, scholarship, and work study program facts

Grant programs, as well as work study programs, can be divided into two primary 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.[17] 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.[18] 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 of 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.[16]

A student's eligibility for work study programs is also determined by information collected on the student's FAFSA.[16] 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 has also been found to be 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. Evidence also suggests that access to financial aid also increases 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.[19]

Many companies offer tuition reimbursement plans for their employees, in order to make the benefit package more attractive, to upgrade the skill levels and to increase retention.[20]

Student loans

In 2012, student loan debt owed in the United States totaled more than $1 trillion.[21] In 2012, total student loans exceeded consumer credit card debt for the first time in history.[22]

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 five kinds of student loans available through the government: Perkins 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. Fro 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.

Private student loans

Students can also acquire loans privately, through banks, credit unions, savings and loan associations, or other finance companies (ref. article pg. 3). Private loans are typically used to supplement federal student loans, which have a yearly borrowing limit. However, private loans typically have more rigid repayment policies.

Education tax credits

US tax payers 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.


Colonial era

Religious denominations established most early colleges in order to train ministers. Harvard College was founded by the colonial legislature in 1636. 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.[23]

Enslavement and Exclusion

Several colleges, including Brown University, Harvard, Dartmouth, William and Mary, University of Virginia, Georgetown University, University of Alabama, University of South Carolina, and Clemson University held enslaved people—and relied on captives to operate.[24][25][26] [27][28][29][30]

19th century

Many Protestant denominations, as well as the Catholics, opened small colleges in the nineteenth century.[31][32] The Catholics, especially, opened a number of women's colleges in the early twentieth century.

All of the 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. The college president typically enforced strict discipline, and the upperclassman enjoyed hazing the freshman. Many students were younger than 17, and most of the colleges also operated a preparatory school. There were no organized sports, or Greek-letter fraternities, but literary societies were active. Tuition was very low and scholarships were few. Many of their students were sons of clergymen; most planned professional careers as ministers, lawyers or teachers.[33]

Impact of 19th-century colleges

Summarizing the research of Burke and Hall, Katz concludes that in the 19th century:.[34]

  1. The nation's many small colleges helped young men make the transition from rural farms to complex urban occupations.
  2. These colleges especially promoted upward mobility by preparing ministers and thereby provided towns across the country with a core of community leaders.
  3. The elite colleges became increasingly exclusive and contributed relatively little to upward social mobility. By concentrating on the offspring of wealthy families, ministers and a few others, the elite Eastern colleges, especially Harvard, played an important role in the formation of a Northeastern elite with great power.

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.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37]

20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 colleges with 160,000 students existed in the United States. 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 gigantic campuses with 40,000 more students, as well as a network of regional campuses around the state. In turn the 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.

Roman 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.[38] 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.[39][40][41]

Community colleges

Major new trends included the development of the junior colleges. They were usually set up by City school systems starting in the 1920s.[42] By the 1960s they were renamed as "community colleges."

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.[43]

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 years 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.[44][45]

Funding of schools

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.[46]

ITT Educational Services Inc, a big operator of For-Profit Schools, warned in July 2014 that it could face restricted funding from the U.S. government for failing to file timely financial reports.[47]

Admission process

Students can apply to some colleges using the Common Application. There is no limit to the number of colleges or universities to which a student may apply, though an application must be submitted for each. 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, GPA, College Application, Essay, and Letters of Recommendation.[48] Not all colleges require essays or letters of recommendation, though they are often proven to increase chances of acceptance.

International study and student exchange

Columbia University Low Memorial Library.

In 2007-8, American students numbering 262,416 studied outside the country with more than 140,000 of these studying in Europe.[49]

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%).[50] 671,616 foreign students enrolled in American colleges in 2008-9.[50][51] This figure rose to 723,277 in 2010–2011. The largest number, 157,558, came from China.[52] 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".[53]

Government coordination

Coordination institutions

Every state has an entity designed to promote coordination and collaboration between higher education institutions. A few are listed:

Academic employment

In the 1980s and 1990s significant changes in the economics of academic life began to be felt, identified by some as a catastrophe in the making and by others as a new era with potentially huge gains for the university. Some critics identified the changes as a new "corporatization of the university." Academic jobs have been traditionally viewed by many intellectuals as desirable, because of the autonomy and intellectual freedom they allow (especially because of the tenure system), despite their low pay compared to other professions requiring extensive education. And until the mid-1970s, when federal expenditures for higher education fell sharply, there were routinely more tenure-track jobs than Ph.D. graduates.

Now, by contrast, despite rising tuition rates and growing university revenues (especially in the U.S.) well-paid professorial positions are rarer, replaced with poorly paid adjunct positions and graduate-student labor.[54] People with doctorates in the sciences, and to a lesser extent mathematics, often find jobs outside of academia (or use part-time work in industry to supplement their incomes), but a Ph.D. in the humanities and many social sciences prepares the student primarily for academic employment. However, in recent years a large proportion of such Ph.D.s—ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent—have been unable to obtain tenure-track jobs. They must choose between adjunct positions, which are poorly paid and lack 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.

Indeed, with academic institutions producing Ph.D.s in greater numbers than the number of tenure-track professorial positions they intend to create, there is little question that administrators are cognizant of the economic effects of this arrangement. The 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".[55]

Most people who are knowledgeable of the academic job market advise prospective graduate students not to attend graduate school if they must pay for it; graduate students who are admitted without tuition remission and a reasonable stipend are forced to incur large debts that they will be unlikely to repay quickly. In addition, most people recommend that students obtain full and accurate information about the placement record of the programs they are considering. At some programs, most Ph.D.s get multiple tenure-track offers, whereas at others few obtain any; such information is clearly very useful in deciding what to do with the next 5–7 years of one's life.

Some believe that, as a number of Baby Boomer professors retire, the academic job market will rebound. However, others predict that this will not result in an appreciable growth of tenure-track positions, as universities will merely fill their needs with low-paid adjunct positions. Aronowitz ascribed this problem to the economic restructuring of academia as a whole:

In fact, the program of restructuring on university campuses, which entails reducing full-time tenure-track positions in favor of part-time, temporary, and contingent jobs, has literally "fabricated" this situation. 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.[56]

The effects of a growing pool of unemployed, underemployed, and undesirably employed Ph.D.s on many countries' economies as a whole is undetermined.

Selected issues

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.[57]

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.[58] Referred to as the "granddaddy of the college rankings",[59] 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.[60]

2007 movement

On 19 June 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." [61] 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." [62] 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." [62] 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 22 June 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." [63] 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." [63]

Financial value of degrees

Studies have looked at the financial payoff to the large investment in time and money that is typically required to receive an academic degree. 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.[64][65] By mid-career, the median annual earnings of undergraduates range from $76,000 in the STEM fields to $46,000 in education and social work. There is also a wide variation in the values of graduate degrees over undergraduate degrees. In medicine they increase earnings by an average of 137%, while in the liberal arts the increase is 23%.[66]

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.[67][68][69] However, the admission of so many marginal students does impact graduation rates.[70]

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.[71][72][73] 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.[74]

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’s degree who earn more money than those with a B.A.[75][76] 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.[77]

College major by underemployment rate

College majors ranked in ascending order by the percentage of college graduates with degrees in those fields who are also employed in jobs that do not require a college degree. Data is 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 (between the ages 22 and 27).[78]

Rank College Major Unemployment
Median Wage
Early Career
Median Wage
Share with
Graduate Degree
1 Nursing 2.0% 13.4% $48,000 $65,000 26.5%
2 Special education 2.4% 14.9% $33,000 $43,000 61.3%
3 Chemical engineering 5.2% 17.0% $70,000 $94,000 49.8%
4 Computer engineering 4.6% 19.1% $60,000 $100,000 37.8%
5 Civil engineering 2.8% 19.8% $50,000 $86,000 37.3%
6 Pharmacy 4.1% 20.3% $42,000 $110,000 54.4%
7 Electrical engineering 4.4% 20.6% $61,000 $95,000 44.1%
8 Mechanical engineering 3.6% 20.7% $60,000 $91,000 40.7%
9 Aerospace engineering 2.4% 20.8% $60,000 $90,000 49.3%
10 Primary education 3.0% 21.3% $32,000 $42,000 46.2%
11 Miscellaneous education 1.0% 22.8% $34,000 $43,000 52.9%
12 General education 4.3% 22.9% $33,500 $44,000 47.6%
13 Computer science 3.6% 24.6% $54,000 $86,000 32.2%
14 Industrial engineering 6.2% 25.6% $60,000 $81,000 41.3%
15 Early childhood education 3.8% 26.2% $30,000 $40,000 38.6%
16 Mathematics 5.9% 26.3% $42,000 $77,000 51.0%
17 Secondary education 2.6% 26.7% $34,000 $47,700 48.3%
18 Accounting 4.0% 26.8% $45,000 $68,000 27.1%
19 General engineering 3.6% 27.6% $55,000 $80,000 35.4%
20 Miscellaneous engineering 3.1% 29.9% $52,000 $83,000 44.4%
21 Biochemistry 4.2% 32.2% $35,200 $75,000 74.1%
22 Chemistry 4.7% 32.6% $39,000 $69,000 65.3%
23 Treatment therapy 2.3% 32.8% $35,000 $66,000 42.6%
24 Miscellaneous physical sciences 5.5% 33.1% $38,000 $70,000 54.0%
25 Physics 6.2% 34.2% $50,000 $80,000 70.0%
26 Construction services 1.8% 35.4% $50,000 $80,000 10.6%
27 Social services 4.6% 35.7% $30,000 $40,000 47.6%
28 Finance 3.7% 36.8% $47,000 $80,000 29.8%
29 Architecture 6.8% 37.1% $40,000 $68,000 36.1%
30 Business analytics 3.7% 38.8% $50,000 $83,000 23.1%
31 Commercial art/Graphic design 5.8% 41.7% $35,000 $52,000 10.1%
32 Earth science 7.9% 41.8% $30,300 $63,000 45.8%
33 Economics 5.1% 42.9% $48,000 $80,000 40.6%
34 Engineering technologies 4.5% 43.7% $42,000 $75,000 22.1%
35 Journalism 3.4% 43.7% $35,000 $64,000 24.3%
36 Biology 5.1% 44.8% $31,500 $60,000 63.7%
Overall 5.0% 45.1% $38,000 $62,000 37.3%
37 Information systems and management 6.7% 45.3% $43,000 $70,000 23.2%
38 Advertising/Public relations 4.9% 46.1% $40,000 $61,000 16.3%
39 Family and consumer sciences 4.3% 46.2% $28,400 $48,000 30.0%
40 Miscellaneous biological sciences 5.9% 46.4% $35,000 $57,000 61.1%
41 Health services 3.8% 47.2% $33,000 $54,000 53.0%
42 International affairs 6.8% 47.4% $40,000 $70,000 42.8%
43 Geography 8.8% 48.1% $34,500 $60,000 30.6%
44 Political science 7.2% 49.7% $38,000 $70,000 51.9%
45 General social sciences 6.4% 50.4% $33,000 $50,000 37.9%
46 Theology/Religion 6.8% 50.8% $28,600 $45,000 43.6%
47 Interdisciplinary studies 5.9% 50.9% $35,000 $60,000 36.9%
48 Psychology 5.9% 51.3% $30,000 $52,000 49.9%
49 English language 7.5% 51.7% $32,200 $55,000 46.5%
50 Philosophy 5.0% 51.7% $35,000 $60,000 56.0%
51 Foreign language 5.7% 51.8% $33,000 $51,000 49.8%
52 Environmental studies 8.5% 53.7% $30,000 $60,000 30.4%
53 Agriculture 1.8% 54.2% $36,000 $55,000 22.1%
54 Nutrition sciences 5.5% 54.4% $36,000 $50,000 42.7%
55 Marketing 4.6% 56.1% $40,000 $70,000 16.7%
56 Mass media 8.6% 56.5% $31,200 $56,000 19.0%
57 Sociology 6.5% 56.5% $33,000 $54,000 35.9%
58 History 5.9% 56.6% $35,000 $60,000 48.4%
59 Ethnic studies 7.3% 57.1% $32,000 $60,000 50.3%
60 Communications 5.4% 58.1% $36,000 $62,000 22.7%
61 General business 4.9% 58.2% $40,000 $67,000 23.9%
62 Liberal arts 5.8% 58.3% $32,000 $56,000 28.4%
63 Animal and plant sciences 2.8% 58.7% $32,000 $52,000 35.1%
64 Art history 7.8% 58.9% $32,000 $53,000 42.6%
65 Anthropology 8.8% 59.1% $30,000 $50,000 47.7%
66 Medical technicians 6.7% 59.6% $44,000 $60,000 23.9%
67 Business management 4.8% 61.4% $38,000 $61,000 22.1%
68 Miscellaneous technologies 5.4% 62.0% $33,000 $70,000 17.4%
69 Fine arts 7.6% 62.3% $29,000 $50,000 22.5%
70 Leisure/Hospitality 5.0% 62.6% $32,000 $52,000 29.4%
71 Public policy/Pre-law 6.3% 63.1% $32,000 $60,000 42.8%
72 Performing arts 6.8% 66.5% $30,000 $47,000 38.5%
73 Criminal justice 5.5% 74.4% $33,000 $60,000 21.8%

Financial value of skilled trades

Wages and expected job openings of skilled trades with educational requirements ranging from an associate degree to a high school diploma. Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.[79]

Occupation Required education Median annual wage in May 2010
Projected job openings from 2010 to 2020
Required work experience in a related occupation
On-the-job training
Air traffic controller Associate degree $108,040 10,200 None Long-term on-the-job training
General manager or Operations manager Associate degree $94,400 410,100 1 to 5 years None.
Construction management Associate degree $83,860 120,400 More than 5 years None
Radiation therapist Associate degree $74,980 6,700 None None
Nuclear medicine technologist Associate degree $68,560 7,500 None None
Dental hygienist Associate degree $68,250 104,900 None None
Nuclear technician Associate degree $68,090 3,300 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Registered nurse Associate degree $64,690 1,207,400 None None
Diagnostic medical sonographer Associate degree $64,380 31,700 None None
Aerospace engineering technologist Associate degree $58,080 1,700 None None
Engineering technologist Associate degree $58,020 16,800 None None
Electrical engineering technician or Electronics engineering technician Associate degree $56,040 31,800 None None
Radiologic technician Associate degree $54,340 95,100 None None
Funeral service manager, director, mortician, or undertaker Associate degree $54,330 10,700 None Apprenticeship
Respiratory therapist Associate degree $54,280 52,700 None None
Geological and petroleum technician Associate degree $54,020 7,000 None Moderate-term on-the-job training.
Electrical and electronics drafter Associate degree $53,020 7,200 None None
Occupational therapy assistant Associate degree $51,010 16,800 None None
Precision instrument and equipment repairer Associate degree $50,910 5,500 None Long-term on-the-job training
Mechanical engineering technician Associate degree $50,110 10,400 None None
First-line supervisor of firefighters and fire prevention workers Postsecondary non-degree award $68,240 33,100 1 to 5 years None
Commercial pilot Postsecondary non-degree award $67,500 19,300 None None
Electrical and electronics repairer (powerhouse, substation, and relay) Postsecondary non-degree award $65,230 6,900 None Long-term on-the-job training
Insurance appraiser (automotive) Postsecondary non-degree award $56,230 2,700 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Telecommunications equipment installer and repairer, except line installer Postsecondary non-degree award $54,710 59,300 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Aircraft maintenance technician Postsecondary non-degree award $53,420 45,200 None None
Railroad switch and signal repairer Postsecondary non-degree award $53,230 1,300 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
First-line supervisor of production and operating workers Postsecondary non-degree award $53,090 87,900 1 to 5 years None
Avionics technician Postsecondary non-degree award $52,320 5,800 None None
Electrical and electronics repairer (commercial and industrial equipment) Postsecondary non-degree award $51,820 17,700 None Long-term on-the-job training
Commercial diver Postsecondary non-degree award $51,360 1,300 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Manager High school diploma $96,450 249,400 1 to 5 years None
Transportation, storage, and distribution manager High school diploma $80,210 33,700 More than 5 years None
First-line supervisor of police and detectives High school diploma $78,260 38,700 1 to 5 years Moderate-term on-the-job training
Administrative services manager (payroll, benefits, etc.) High school diploma $77,890 99,800 1 to 5 years None
Nuclear power reactor operator High school diploma $75,650 2,000 None Long-term on-the-job training
Elevator mechanic High school diploma $70,910 8,200 None Apprenticeship
Power station distributor and dispatcher High school diploma $68,900 3,600 None Long-term on-the-job training
First-line supervisor of non-retail sales workers High school diploma $68,880 123,500 More than 5 years None
Detective High school diploma $68,820 30,100 1 to 5 years Moderate-term on-the-job training
Fashion designer High school diploma $64,530 6,700 None Long-term on-the-job training
Power station operator High school diploma $63,080 14,400 None Long-term on-the-job training
Business operations specialist High school diploma $62,450 327,200 Less than 1 year Long-term on-the-job training
Media and communication equipment worker High school diploma $61,680 3,300 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Agriculture manager High school diploma $60,750 234,500 More than 5 years None
Postmaster or mail superintendent High school diploma $60,300 4,800 1 to 5 years Moderate-term on-the-job training
Oil refinery operator High school diploma $60,040 14,400 None Long-term on-the-job training
First-line supervisor of mechanics, installers, and repairers High school diploma $59,150 164,900 1 to 5 years None
Artists and related workers High school diploma $58,840 4,800 None Long-term on-the-job training
First-line supervisor of construction workers or natural resource extraction workers High school diploma $58,680 259,700 More than 5 years None
Claims adjuster, examiner or investigator High school diploma $58,620 79,900 None Long-term on-the-job training
Lineman High school diploma $58,030 52,700 None Long-term on-the-job training
Gas plant operator High school diploma $57,200 4,500 None Long-term on-the-job training
Rapid transit driver High school diploma $56,880 2,800 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Purchasing manager High school diploma $56,580 91,200 None Long-term on-the-job training
Loan officer High school diploma $56,490 115,200 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
First-line supervisor of corrections officers High school diploma $55,910 16,500 1 to 5 years Moderate-term on-the-job training
Chemical plant operator High school diploma $55,490 14,100 None Long-term on-the-job training
Real estate broker High school diploma $54,910 29,700 1 to 5 years None
Boilermaker High school diploma $54,640 11,800 None Apprenticeship
Transit policeman or Railroad policeman High school diploma $54,330 1,100 None Short-term on-the-job training
Agricultural purchasing agent High school diploma $54,220 3,200 None Long-term on-the-job training
Mail carrier High school diploma $53,860 103,400 None Short-term on-the-job training
Police officer High school diploma $53,540 249,400 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Indoor postal worker High school diploma $53,100 15,500 None Short-term on-the-job training
Postal service mail sorter, processor, or processing machine operator High school diploma $53,080 7,500 None Short-term on-the-job training
First-line supervisor of transportation and material-moving machine and vehicle operators High school diploma $52,720 69,300 1 to 5 years None
Sales representative, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific products High school diploma $52,440 559,900 None Moderate-term on-the-job training
Building code inspector High school diploma $52,360 48,600 More than 5 years Moderate-term on-the-job training
Fire marshal High school diploma $52,230 4,700 More than 5 years Moderate-term on-the-job training
Stationary engineer High school diploma $52,140 10,600 None Long-term on-the-job training
Plant or system operator High school diploma $51,980 3,700 None Long-term on-the-job training
Paralegal High school diploma $51,800 9,600 None Short-term on-the-job training
Property manager High school diploma $51,480 82,300 1 to 5 years None
Telecommunications line installer or repairer High school diploma $50,850 51,400 None Long-term on-the-job training
Sales representative High school diploma $50,620 270,100 None Short-term on-the-job training

Socioeconomic status

Socioeconomic status can play a part in one's chances of taking advantage of higher education. A 2011 national study found that college students with a high socioeconomic status persisted in college 25 percent more than students with a low socioeconomic status.[80] 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 percent of students with low socioeconomic status report earning a master's, medical, or law degree compared to 42 percent of high socioeconomic students.[81] Analyst Jeffrey Selingo wondered whether higher education had less and less ability to level the playing field.[2] A 2007 study found that 52 percent of low-income students who qualified for college enrolled within 2 years of graduation compared to 83 percent of high-income students.[82] 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 percent. In comparison, 84 percent of high school graduates from high-income families enrolled immediately into college. Middle-class families also saw lower rates with 67 percent enrolling in college immediately.[83] 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.[84] Students who had access to financial aid contacts were more likely to enroll in higher education than students who did not have these contacts.[82]

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. Forty-two percent 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,[85] although such students may benefit since potential employers assign great importance to a graduate's work experience.[86] 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.[87]


Race can play a part in which students enroll in college. A 2007 study found that African Americans are more likely to delay enrolling in college.[82] 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. [83] The 2011 Condition of Education study found that in 2008, 63 percent of college students were white, while 14 percent were African American and 12 percent were Hispanic.[83] 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 percent.[80] Caucasians and Asian Americans had the lowest dropout rates.


In discussing student's access to education in the United States, one area of concentration that current research has focused on in the last half century is the differences that exist between students entry and completion rates based on gender. In a study done by Bailey & Dynarski (2011) it was observed that the increase in inequality that has been observed in the last 40+ years has been predominantly driven by women.[88]

Within higher-income families that are sending more children to universities and colleges, 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, females are more motivated to obtain higher levels of education.[88]

The gap of educational attainment between men and women is starting at a young age and affecting students access to higher education later on 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 across 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.[88]

When comparing graduation rates between men and women, 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.[88]

Undocumented 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.[89] 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." [90]

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.[89] 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.[90]

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.[89]

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.[90]


Main article: MOOC

A MOOC is a massive open online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. It became popular in 2010-2014. In 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.[91] 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."[92]


Cost and finances

Critics contend that 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.[93] 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.[94] A report in The Economist criticized American universities for generally losing sight of how to contain costs.[95] 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.[2] 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.[96] 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.[95]

Amenities such as a lazy river at a dorm at the University of North Florida are reputed to be driving up costs for undergraduate education.[2]

Another issue is the rising cost of textbooks.[97] 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.

The total cost of all higher education in 2002 was $289 billion.[98]

One theory for the continual increase in tuition is that universities prioritize endowment growth over educational interests.[99] 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.[100]

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.[101] 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.[102]

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.[103]

In 2009, average annual tuition at a public university (for residents of the state) was $7,020.[104] 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).[105] 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.[106] 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”.[107]

In addition to tuition, living expenses, books, supplies and fees, students also 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.[108]

Study comparing college revenue per student by tuition and state funding in 2008 dollars.[109]

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.[110]

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 percent, largely due to dwindling state funding. A more moderate increase of 6 percent occurred over the same period for private schools.[105] Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees rose three times as fast as median family income, in constant dollars.[111] 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.[112]

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.[113] 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.[114]

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.[115]

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.[116] According to a 2011-2012 survey the average in state tuition was $8,775 while the out of state tuition was $27,539.[117] 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.[117] In state students that would have previously been accepted at that high ranking university where no longer able to attend.[116] 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.[116][117]

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.[118] New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has cited this as an example of how U.S. universities can exacerbate wealth inequality.[119] 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."[120] According to Suzanne Mettler of Cornell, government policy towards higher education has an effect of deepening inequality and disadvantaging students from the lower classes.[121]

Athletics have been increasingly subsidized by tuition. Fewer than one in eight of the 202 Division 1 colleges actually netted more money than they spent on athletics between the years 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.[122]

Issues related to financial aid

The portion of state budget funding spent on higher education has decreased by 40 percent since 1978, while at the same time most tuition fees have significantly increased.[80] Between 2000 and 2010, the cost of tuition and room and board at public universities increased by 37 percent.[123] 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 than they once did.[16] During the early 1980s, higher education funding saw a shift from reliance on state and federal government funding to a greater reliance on 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 percent of the cost for college was covered by the maximum offered Pell Grant, compared to 84 percent during the 1970s.[124]

During Clinton's presidency, funding for higher education was focused on creating tax benefits tied to attending college. These proposed policies put less emphasis on developing grants to allow students to attend college. Some have argued that this approach did not adequately provide aid to those students most in need of it. Furthermore, there was fear that tax deductions or credits would actually work to drive up tuition costs.[125]

The federal government also began funding fewer grant programs and more loan programs, leaving students with higher amounts of debt. In 2003, almost 70 percent of federal student aid awarded was student loans, which was a much higher percentage than just a decade before.[124] In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that during the 2007–2008 school year, 66% of degree recipients had 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 $24,700.36 during the 2007–2008 school year.[126] One estimate of total debt of all ex-students in 2011 was $1 trillion.[95] Furthermore, the economic troubles of the recent decade have left higher education funding shifted toward other needs because higher education institutions have the ability to gain extra funds through raising tuition and private donations.[127]

Policy changes in higher education funding raise questions about the impact on student performance and access to higher education. Many early studies focused on social integration and a person's individual attributes as the factors for degree completion.[80] 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.[80] Also, as the level to qualify for state need-based aid is lowered, the probability of persistence increases. Low-income families now have to pay more to attend college, making it harder for such populations to attain higher education. In 1980, low-income families had to use 13 percent 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 use less than 5 percent of their income.[124] Thus, fully understanding how need and merit (non-need) aid is determined is critical when looking to ensure greater access to higher education. It is clear that at both private and public colleges and universities family income has a significant 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. Specifically, research confirms that merit-based financial aid often takes into account student need and vice versa.[128]

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 various 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.[129]

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 it 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."[130] 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."[130]

Some low-income students have to work and study at the same time. This may adversely impact their performance in school.[131]

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 many 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 again to the fact that higher education funding is 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.[127]

For-profit schools

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.[132][133]

Altogether, at their peak, for-profit colleges enrolled about 11% of the students, but created approximately 47% of all the student loan defaults.[134]

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.[135]

For-profit colleges have aggressively recruited among military veterans, and in 2010 received 36% percent 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%.


The amount of debt that students have after graduation has become an issue of concern, especially given the weak job market after 2008.[136][137][138] Nearly all loans are financed by the federal government at an artificially low rate,[139] but students sometimes obtain private loans (which generally have higher interest rates and start accumulating interest immediately). 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.[140] Student loans total $1 trillion, averaging $25,000 each for 40 million debtors. The debtors average age is 33. Forty percent of the debt is owed by people 40 or older.[139] A 2013 poll by NBC News found that more than 40% of college graduates from 2011 to 2012 were underemployed, and that some were "heavily in debt because of the cost of their education."[141]

Graduation rates

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.[142]

Academic standards

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 phenomena 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. The most likely explanation is the desire of instructors to avoid confrontations with students demanding a better grade, as well as the desire to receive favorable course evaluations from those students. 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.[143][144][145]

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.[146]

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 percent 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.[147]

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.[148]

While the traditional approach to pedagogy in higher education focuses on the teacher's responsibility, J. Scott Armstrong argues that students have a "natural learning" ability. They should take responsibility for their learning. The teacher-centered approach inhibits learning.[149]

Political views

Research since the 1970s have consistently found that professors are more liberal and Democratic than the general population.[150][151][152][153] 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.[154] 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.[155][156] One conservative critic has suggested that liberal "Groupthink" explains why liberals appear to be overrepresented.[157]

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%).[158][159]

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.[160][161] Self-selection has also been suggested by others as the main explanation.[162][163]

In a 2011 nationwide study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute 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%).[164] In the study, 62.7% of responding professors self-identify as being politically liberal or "far left".[165] 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.[166] 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.[167]

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.[168]

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.[169]

Geographic considerations

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.[2]

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