I. Executive Summary

The recession-era boom in the size of freshman classes at four-year colleges, community colleges and trade schools has been driven largely by a sharp increase in minority student enrollment, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Freshman enrollment at the nation’s 6,100 post-secondary institutions surged by 144,000 students from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008. This 6% increase was the largest in 40 years1, and almost three-quarters of it came from minority freshman enrollment growth.

From 2007 to 2008 (the first year of the recession), the freshman enrollment of Hispanics at post-secondary institutions grew by 15%, of blacks by 8%, of Asians by 6% and of whites by 3%.

Some of this minority enrollment surge is a simple byproduct of demographic change. In a nation whose population of youths is far more diverse than its population of adults, each new year brings a slightly larger share of minority teenagers into the pool of potential college freshmen. In addition, the first year of the recession was a time when young Hispanics, in particular, were completing high school at record rates. According to Census Bureau surveys, the Hispanic high school completion rate reached an all-time high in October 2008 at 70%.2 This was up 2.5 percentage points over October 2007 — a larger increase than for any other racial or ethnic group.

Minority college students tend to be clustered more at community colleges and trade schools than at four-year colleges. Even so, the minority freshman enrollment spike from 2007 to 2008 occurred at all basic levels of post-secondary education. The makeup of the freshman class at the nation’s less-than-four-year colleges and universities dropped from 55% white in 2007 to 53% white in 2008. Similarly, the composition of the freshman class at four-year schools dropped from 64% white in 2007 to 62% white in 2008.

The freshman enrollment boom has not been spread evenly across the nation’s post-secondary institutions. Two-year institutions (most of which are community colleges) saw the greatest increase — 11%. By contrast, the increase at four-year institutions was just 4% and the increase at less-than-two-year institutions (often referred to as trade schools) was 5%.

Another category that experienced large freshmen enrollment increases from 2007 to 2008 was the private, for-profit institutions; these may include four-year colleges and universities, such as the University of Phoenix, as well as two-year and less-than-two-year institutions. Freshmen enrollment grew 11% at these schools.

(The growth of the private, for-profit schools as well as issues related to growing student debt burdens will be the subject of a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee hearing on June 24th.)

At the level of individual institutions of higher education there has been vast disparity in rates of freshmen enrollment growth. Indeed, half of the total increase in freshmen enrollment occurred at just 109 colleges and universities out of nearly 6,100.