How many American college students are there?

A few weeks ago I put together a quick presentation on the U.S. university system for a meeting of European university activists. It’s a strange experience, suddenly being the only American in a room and feeling some sort of obligation to describe a massive institutional system with at least some minimal level of accuracy. I resorted to a fair number of statistics, which I confess is a cowardly gambit for someone from a qualitative field who’s opposed to illusions of objectivity; though to be fair, I think most people are aware that the numbers can be misleading and can take them with a grain of salt. (That, to me, was one of the major things to learn from looking at some demographic data last year: that numbers always require a lot of subject-specific interpretive labor.)

Today I wanted to write a word about one peculiar difficulty that I came across in the numbers. I was looking for an answer to a pretty basic question: how many university students does the United States have? Curiously, this turns out not to have a straightforward answer. If you look in the figures of the National Center for Education Statistics, there are several ways of measuring enrollments. Do you compare enrollment figures from a single point that you track across the years? There’s a large set of figures for “autumn enrollment” which appear to be useful for this purpose; I’d imagine that for certain kinds of research, like tracking attrition across years or tracking how a given high school class goes through college, it’s helpful to have a fixed point to compare from one year to the next.

But at the same time, there are naturally going to be a certain number of people who won’t enroll in autumn even though they’ll take university classes at some point in a year. As a result, there are also figures on “12-month enrollments” which cumulate everyone who’s signed up for a class in a 12 month period. And to make matters worse, there are some people who are full-time students and others who are something less than full-time; how do we count part-time students? Here we have yet another set of figures that gives “full-time equivalences,” calculated by dividing an institution’s total credit hours dispensed per year by the number of credits taken (arbitrarily) to constitute full-time enrollment (45 per year for undergrads, less for grad students).

If this last sentence makes no sense, you’re welcome to read the official explanation. But perhaps it would be better to skip to some examples:

2007 Enrollment Figures
Fall enrollments, Full-time equivalent 14,421,739
Fall enrollment, Total 19,008,329
12-month enrollments, Total 25,781,747
12-month enrollments, Full-time equivalent 15,562,078

Now the problem with this is: if someone, a European for example, asks you how many American students there are, which one do you answer? Do you give the 12-month enrollment, which is the best indicator of how many total students are involved in higher education? Or do you give the fall enrollment figure, which seems to be the more frequently cited figure, even though it’s 6.8 million fewer people and 26% less than the 12-month total? And I won’t even get into the FTEs, which seem more useful for, say, planning institutional resource distributions than for giving an idea of how many students there are.

And what, after all, is a student? To be a student is to have a social identity that is only partly determined by an institutional enrollment status. There might be part-time enrollees who don’t work and who identify fully as students; there may even be full-time students who work full-time and identify primarily as workers. There could be people who come back to college in their middle age who never really see themselves as students. At some level, quantitative institutional data isn’t sufficient (though it’s no doubt necessary) for finding out how many students there are. One would have to find out who these people are, what else they do, and how they relate to academic institutions.

But in the meantime, I told my European colleagues the 12-month figure, thinking that it gives a sense of the sheer expanse of American higher ed. 25.8 million people: it’s an unimaginable number. If it were a nation, it would be the 46th largest in the world — slightly larger than Saudi Arabia and bigger than plenty of European nations. Bigger than Texas. Who are all these people? When I think of these figures, I can only imagine that internal social variation among American students must be enormous, enough to rule out any easy generalizations about American students as a group.

(It comes to me in passing that it would be interesting to do research on students’ degrees of allegiance to the student group, on the formation of student consciousness of themselves as students, on the ways that shared “student” identities inevitably exclude some people who are formally students but nonetheless not participants in the social universe of studenthood.)

What do you think? How many American students are there? (Comments from educational statistics people particularly welcome.)

4 thoughts on “How many American college students are there?

  1. Yep, there’s definitely a parallel to our other discussion of class. But the difference, just speaking personally, is that it doesn’t really surprise me that the idea of “class” would be complicated, but on the other hand, it did surprise me that getting a student population count could be complicated. I mean it just hadn’t crossed my mind that “how many college students are there?” could be a problematic question that required a special definition of “students.” Does this not come as a surprise to you at all?

  2. I used to teach freshman classes, and one surprising thing was that a number of students that were officially on the list never showed up, including at exams.

    Their names sounded foreign, so I suppose they simply wanted to have some justification for a student visa.

  3. David, thanks for your comment. It seems to me that because tuition charges are so low in France, it can make economic sense for people to enroll without attending classes, in a way that would make much less sense in the U.S. where the fees are thousands and thousands of dollars.

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