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Although other nations continue to outperform the U.S. in terms of educational attainment, the Pew Research Center reported yesterday that record numbers of young Americans are attending and completing college. Of Americans aged 25 to 29 in 2012, 33 percent have completed at least a bachelor’s degree and 63 percent have completed some college—up from 17 and 34 percent respectively in 1971.

The NY Times noted that this is welcome news following the “education reversal” of the early 2000s, when the percentage of young Americans (ages 25 to 29) earning bachelor’s degrees leveled off and was surpassed by the share of “prime age adults” (ages 45 to 64) receiving degrees. Now, this trend “has vanished or been reversed by recent improvements in the education attainment of young adults,” according to the report.

The authors posit that more young Americans may have recently pursued (and earned) degrees in higher education as a means of weathering the job drought caused by the 2007-09 Great Recession. However, the report acknowledges that the portion of young adults attending and completing college has generally increased since 1980. This long-term trend it attributes to improved public opinions regarding the importance of a college education. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, 75 percent of Americans agreed that, in order to get ahead in life, a college education is necessary (up from only 36 percent in 1978).

Unfortunately, the fact remains that other countries are not only achieving higher levels educational attainment than the U.S., their rate of improvement outpaces ours. If the U.S. is to reclaim its title as a global leader in higher education, we will need greater gains than this in the coming years.

A landmark study from 1990 classified 212 US institutions as liberal arts colleges, but new research shows a 39 percent decline in that number—only 130 institutions currently meet the original study’s classification criteria. Of the 82 institutions no longer classified as liberal arts colleges, a handful were subsumed by larger institutions, while about half had shifted their mission away from the standard liberal arts definition.

Historically, definitions of liberal arts colleges (including Carnegie Classifications) have highlighted their focus on undergraduate studies; selective admissions; small class sizes; emphasis on nurturing diverse perspectives and personal growth; and de-emphasis on cultivating professional skills. According to the more recent study, however, many liberal arts institutions are now offering more “professional” programs and incorporating more research into their curricula. The authors speculate that liberal arts colleges may be making this shift away from their standard definition in response to economic pressures. For example, schools may be attempting to:

  • Offset dwindling revenue streams by attracting new segments of the market;
  • Remain competitive in a market flooded by online and for-profit institutions; or
  • Accommodate students’ increased focus on vocational preparation.

To expand on that last point, recent federal and state-level preoccupation with graduates’ potential earnings has put liberal arts colleges in a difficult position as degrees in traditional liberal arts fields (i.e. social sciences and humanities) may be less lucrative for graduates than other degrees (i.e. professional or STEM degrees). For example, according to, the average first-year earnings of a graduate with a four-year degree in the State of Virginia are about $30,000 if the degree was in sociology or about $46,000 if the degree was in civil engineering.

A widely-regarded strength of the US higher education system is its diversity. However, if liberal arts colleges shift their missions to include the research and career-preparatory goals of other schools, the system may become more homogeneous—leaving students with fewer educational options.

For the first time in 15 years, fewer students are enrolling in higher education overall. Enrollments at public four-year and private non-profit institutes actually increased, but falling for-profit and two-year enrollments pulled down the average. According to preliminary data released this week by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, colleges and universities eligible for federal financial aid experienced a 0.2 percent decrease in their total enrollments between Fall 2010 (21,588,124 students) and Fall 2011 (21,554,004 students). Although slight, this drop could indicate that fewer individuals are using some sectors of higher education as a refuge from the recent recession and/or that rising tuition rates are driving students out of some markets. Regardless, the new trend could be problematic for those advocating for higher education attainment as well as for universities hoping to derive more revenue from increased enrollments.

Some specific findings include:

  • For-profit institutions were hit the hardest. Enrollments dropped by 1.9 percent at four-year for-profits and by a whopping 7 percent at two-year for-profits. This is likely due to tougher federal regulations on for-profits as well as for-profit institutions deciding to use more selective admissions practices.
  • Two-year institutes struggled, while four-year schools continued to thrive. Two-year enrollments (across all sectors) are down by an average of 2.4 percent, while four-year enrollments are up an average of 1.2 percent. Much of the two-year drop was driven by the aforementioned drop in two-year for-profit enrollments; however, California’s recent limit on community college enrollments can also help explain the decrease in two-year numbers.
  • Part-time enrollments grew, but full-time enrollments shrunk. About 0.8 percent more students enrolled in part-time programs (across all sectors), whereas 0.8 percent fewer students enrolled in full-time programs. Two possible explanations are that the job market has recovered enough to keep more students employed or that more students now need income to support themselves during school.

UW enrollments reflect those of four-year public institutes across the country. Total enrollments at four-year public institutes increased by an average of 1.5 percent from Fall 2010 to Fall 2011. UW’s total enrollments (undergraduate and graduate students combined) increased by 1.6 percent from Fall 2010 (49,940 students) to Fall 2011 (50,745 students) and by another 1.6 percent from Fall 2011 to Fall 2012 (51,576 students). For more UW enrollment statistics, see the OPB Factbook.

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Education released its annual update on federal student loan cohort default rates (CDRs) and, although national CDRs are gloomily high, UW’s rates are impressively low. As the Department is in the process of switching to a more accurate three-year CDR measure, this year’s report includes both the FY 2010 two-year and the FY 2009 three-year CDRs. These rates represent the percentage of student borrowers who failed to make loan payments for 270 days within two or three years, respectively, of leaving school.

The Department provides breakdowns of its data by institution type, state and school. Here are some key findings:


  • The FY 2010 two-year CDR increased from 8.8 to 9.1 percent overall. Public institutions increased from 7.2 to 8.3 percent, private nonprofits increased from 4.6 to 5.2 percent, but for-profits decreased from 15.0 to 12.9 percent (though their two-year CDR is still the highest).
  • The FY 2009 three-year CDR is 13.4 percent overall (this is the Department’s first year reporting three-year data) with public institutions at 11 percent, private nonprofits at 7.5 percent, and for-profits at 22.7 percent.


  • UW’s three-year CDR is a remarkable 3.1 percent—more than 10 percentage points below the national average.
  • UW’s two-year CDR increased slightly from 1.4 to 2.1 percent, but is still well below the national average.
  • The State of Washington’s three-year CDR is 11.3 percent—below the national average, but still above approximately half the states.

Unfortunately, the Department does not release loan default rates disaggregated by student demographic (even though it collects this information), which prevents schools from identifying and catering assistance to students with the most need. While third-parties have conducted studies indicating that Pell Grant recipients and Latino students are more likely to default on loans, schools and legislators need better data from the federal government in order to fully identify at-risk groups and mitigate rising default rates.

As a recent post discussed, if you attend college, you are more likely to earn more money. But, as you might imagine, the financial value of higher education depends on what program you choose and where.

Information on the annual earnings of students from different programs and institutions is exactly what Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida, hope to provide. Their recently-introduced “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” proposes creating a state-based, individual-level data system linking the average costs and graduation rates of specific programs and institutions to their graduates’ accrued debt and annual earnings.

Although useful, Senator Wyden acknowledged that such information is limited and that focusing on financial indicators alone could undermine the importance of liberal arts—whose graduates may not earn large salaries right after college. He stated that the bill’s intention is “to empower people to make choices.” However, “people” include not just students, but policy makers—such as Florida’s Governor Rick Scott who sparked controversy last October when he asserted that state money should go to job-oriented fields, rather than fields like anthropology which, he said, do not serve the state’s vital interest.

Regardless of the bill’s success, about half of the states already have the ability to link postsecondary academic records with labor data. And some, such as Tennessee, have already done so. Here in Washington, the Education Research and Data Center is in the process of connecting certain employment and enrollment data for schools, such as the UW, to analyze in the coming months.

All this begs the question: Is college chiefly for personal economic gain?

A recent report by the College Board highlights both the financial and nonfinancial payoffs of college. Additionally, David A. Reidy, head of the philosophy department at University of Tennessee Knoxville, stated in a recent Chronicle article that four-year degrees, particularly in liberal-arts, are not solely for job training. “The success of the American democratic experiment depends significantly on a broadly educated citizenry, capable of critical thinking, cultural understanding, moral analysis and argument,” he wrote. Philosophy and other core disciplines help nurture such a citizenry, he continued, “And the value there is incalculable.”

The US Departments of Treasury and Education teamed up to analyze higher education and economic data, and released a short report that highlights the following familiar points:

  • Education is correlated with higher earnings: median weekly earnings for a worker with a BA degree are now 64% higher than for a worker with only a high school degree.
  • Education is key to socio-economic mobility: almost half of children born into the bottom income quintile remain there as adults compared to only 20% of those who receive a degree.
  • Funding cuts result in higher tuition: Public funding for institutions has, on average, declined from 60% of revenue to less than 40% over two decades while tuition revenue has increased by almost the same amount of the decline.

As a result of the above, federal financial aid has become an increasingly important contributor to college affordability, comprising over half of all grants and loans awarded to students. While protecting and increasing federal funding for aid is imperative, the report makes clear that states and institutions will have to make changes as these trends continue or broad access to higher education in the US will be at serious risk.

In 2009, the National Research Council received a request from Congress for a “report that examines the health and competitiveness of America’s research universities vis-à-vis their counterparts elsewhere in the world”.

Responding to the request, the NRC assembled a 22-member panel of university and business leaders and mandated them to identify the “top ten actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century”.

The panel released its final report last week under the title Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. The following were the strongest themes:

  • State and federal governments must increase their investment in research universities, allow these institutions more autonomy and agility, and reduce their regulatory burden: The panel identified the state and federal governments as the key actors in the strategy it proposed; indeed, seven of its ten recommendations were primarily aimed at them. In one of its more ambitious statements, the panel recommended that states should strive to restore and maintain per-student funding for higher education to the mean level for the 15-year period 1987-2002, adjusted for inflation. In Washington, this translates into recommending a per-FTE funding increase of between 70% and 80%. The panel acknowledged that this could be difficult to implement in the near term given current state budget challenges and shifting state priorities, but nevertheless stressed that “any loss of world-class quality for America’s public research institutions seriously damages national prosperity, security, and quality of life.”

  • Strengthen the role of business and industry in the research partnership: The panel recommended that tax incentives be put in place to encourage businesses to invest in partnerships with universities both to produce new research and to define new graduate degree programs. It also encouraged business leaders and philanthropists to help increase the participation and success of women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

  • Research universities should strive to increase their cost-effectiveness and productivity: The panel recommended that universities should “strive to contain the cost escalation of all ongoing activities […] to the inflation rate or lower through improved efficiency and productivity”. However, it made no mention of the difficulties raised in the previous NRC report on productivity concerning the impact of cost-reduction measures on quality.

The panel’s recommendations are not novel: they have already been made by multiple parties in the higher education sector over the last few years. However, given the weight of the signatures on the report, this document may prove useful in raising the profile of higher education in upcoming budget battles both at the state and federal level.

At the beginning of the economic downturn in late 2008, a higher than expected number of Americans turned to higher education, leading to a 7.1 percent increase in college enrollment for 2009. This phenomenon is typical of recessions as many need to refresh their qualifications and/or increase their skill sets when faced with a volatile job market. A new NCES report finds that while enrollment increased again in 2010, it went up by at a more modest rate, 2.8 percent. Some other interesting findings from the latest NCES data include:

  • For first-time freshmen, one-year retention rates were 72 percent for full-time students, but only 44 percent for part-time students.
  • Public four-years got 19 percent of their funding from tuition dollars, while private non-profits and for-profits relied on tuition for 33 percent and 91 percent of their revenues, respectively.
  • The average six-year graduation rate for full-time students across all four-year schools, public and private, was 58 percent in 2004.
  • In 2009-2010, 82 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates received financial aid. Of those students receiving grant aid, the average net price (sticker price minus grant aid) of attending a public 4-year university was $10,200 (the net price was $16,700 at private non-profits and $23,800 at private for-profits).
  • Men made up a slightly higher proportion of enrollments in 2009 than they did in 2008, 42.8 percent versus 42.6 percent respectively.

To take a look at the report and data, click here. Find additional analysis in this Inside Higher Ed article.

A new report put out by the National Science Foundation examines math and science education at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary level. In general, the news is sobering: elementary and secondary proficiency in science and math is languishing below 40 percent nationwide. Chapter 8 of the report focuses on state indicators, featuring state-by-state breakdowns of science and math education. Important indicators include the number of Bachelor’s degrees conferred, the proportion of degrees in science and engineering (S&E) fields, state expenditures on higher education, and the prevalence of S&E jobs in the workforce. Interesting findings include:

  • In 2009, 1.6 million bachelor’s degrees were conferred in the United States, up 29 percent since 2000. Of these degrees, more than 501,000 were in S&E fields. In Washington State, 32.9 percent of degrees conferred were S&E degrees.
  • During 2010, the annual sticker price for a public 4-year education was $15,014, which represents a 43 percent increase since 2000 (after adjusting for inflation). This does not represent net price, since this number does not include financial aid.
  • In 2009, undergraduate education at a state institution consumed 35.7 percent of a Washington resident’s disposable income. Note that this number does not account for the 20 percent tuition hike in 2010.
  • State funding for major public research universities per student enrolled in 2000 was $10,107, which dropped to $8,815 in 2009.
  • In Washington, 32.5 percent of 25-44 year olds hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • 5.83 percent of Washington’s residents in 2009 were employed in S&E fields, up from 5.16 percent in 2000.
  • Washington has one of the highest rates of patents awarded per worker in S&E occupations in the US—28.2 patents per 1000 S&E workers.

The report indicates that research is flourishing and that Washington is increasingly awarding more degrees in S&E fields, but also that state funding for higher education and affordability have decreased dramatically. We will explore this report more in future posts. To read more about the report, check out the Higher Ed Chronicle post or read the full report.

New OPB Brief

Posted under Higher Ed News by  

This week, UPenn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE) released a report assessing the state of higher education policy in Washington State. While satisfactorily describing the key facts and long-term trends and potential future problems for higher education in Washington State, the report is somewhat unrealistic in its recommendations. It seems to assume that, absent any change in state funding trends, policymakers can dramatically alter educational attainment via structural changes in governance.

Read the latest OPB brief for more information.

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