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Higher education in the United States

2008–2012 bachelor's degree or higher (5-year estimate) by county (percent)
People 25 years and over that have completed an advanced degree by state (percent, 2012)

Higher education in the United States is an optional stage of formal learning following secondary education. Higher education, is also referred as post-secondary education, third-stage, third-level, or tertiary education. It covers stages 5 to 8 on the International ISCED 2011 scale. It is delivered at 4,360 Title IV degree-granting institutions, known as colleges or universities.[1] These may be public or private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or for-profit colleges. US higher education is loosely regulated by several third-party organizations.[2]

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and National Student Clearinghouse, college enrollment has declined since a peak in 2010–2011 and is projected to continue declining or be stagnant for the next two decades. The US is unique in its investment in highly competitive NCAA sports, particularly in American football and basketball, with large sports stadiums and arenas.[3]



US higher education functions as an institution of knowledge, but has several secondary functions. The primary function went through four phases in the development: preserving Christian civilization, advancing the national interest, research, and growing the global economy[4] It has also served as a source for professional credentials, as a vehicle for social mobility, and as a social sorter.[5][6] The college functions as a 'status marker', "signaling membership in the educated class, and a place to meet spouses of similar status".[7]

In 2018, Universitas 21 (U21), the network of research-intensive universities, ranked the US first globally for overall higher education, but only 15th when GDP was factored into the equation. Accounting for GDP, the top 10 nations for higher education in 2018 were Finland, the United Kingdom, Serbia, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland, South Africa, Israel and New Zealand.[8]

Strong research funding helped 'elite American universities' dominate global rankings in the early 21st century, making them attractive to international students, professors and researchers.[9] Other countries, though, are offering incentives to compete for researchers[10] as funding is threatened in the US [11][12] and US dominance of international tables has lessened.[13][14] The system has also been blighted by fly-by-night schools, diploma mills, visa mills, and predatory for-profit colleges.[15][16][17][18] There have been some attempts to reform the system through federal policy such as gainful employment regulations, but they have been met by resistance.[19]

According to Pew Research Center and Gallup poll surveys, public opinion about colleges has been declining, especially among Republicans and the white working class.[20][21][22][23] The higher education industry has been criticized for being unnecessarily expensive, providing a difficult-to-measure service which is seen as vital but in which providers are paid for inputs instead of outputs, which is beset with federal regulations that drive up costs, and payments coming from third parties, not users.[24] In a 2018 Pew survey, 61 percent of those polled said that US higher education was headed in the wrong direction.[25] A 2019 Gallup survey found that, among graduates who strongly felt a purpose in life was important, "only 40 percent said they had found a meaningful career after college."[26]

Types of colleges and universitiesEdit

Harvard University: Harvard Yard with freshman dorms in the background

US Colleges and universities vary in their goals: some emphasize a vocational, business, engineering, or technical curriculum (like polytechnic universities and land-grant universities) and others emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above, as comprehensive universities.


The term "college" refers to one of three types of education institutions: stand-alone higher level education institutions that are not components of a university.

  1. community colleges
  2. liberal arts colleges
  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 1970s, all but a few men's colleges accepted women. Over 80% of the women's colleges of the 1960s have closed or merged, leaving fewer than 50. Over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) operate, both private (such as Morehouse College) and public (such as North Carolina A&T State University).

Some U.S. states offer higher education at two year "colleges" formerly called "community colleges". The elevation in status comes from cooperation between community colleges and local universities.

Share of all bachelor's degrees awarded by field

Four-year colleges often have more students, offer a greater range of studies, and provide the bachelor's degree (most commonly the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.). They are primarily either undergraduate only institutions (e.g. 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.

Higher education has led to the creation of accreditation organizations, independent of the government, to vouch for the quality of degrees. They rate institutions on academic quality, the quality of their libraries, the publishing records of their faculty, the degrees which their faculty hold, and their financial solvency.[citation needed] Accrediting agencies have been criticized for possible conflicts of interest that lead to favorable results.[27] Non-accredited institutions exist, but the students are not eligible for federal loans.

Student entry into higher educationEdit

Under the American secondary education system, students select compulsory and elective courses while at high school. Completing each course to the schools satisfaction gains the student a number of credits. To enter tertiary education the student will be doing a number of Advanced placement courses that will gain the highest number of credits. A student graduates from High School when the minimum number of credits has been achieved, and will be accepted by a college when their required number is achieved. The college system is similar: each course passed earns a set number of credits, and the student graduates with an undergraduate degree when the set number have been earned. The credits travel with the student should they change institution.[citation needed]


Saint Anselm College, a New England liberal arts college

Universities are research-oriented educational institutions with undergraduate and graduate programs. For historical reasons, some universities such as Boston College, Dartmouth College, The College of William & Mary, and College of Charleston have retained the term college instead of "university" for 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.[28]

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 faculties within universities as colleges or schools.[citation needed]

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.[29][30]

Each state supports at least one state university and several support many more. California 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 large student bodies, with introductory classes numbering in the hundreds, with some undergraduate classes taught by graduate students. Tribal colleges operated on Indian reservations by some federally recognized tribes are also public institutions.[citation needed]

Many private universities exist. Some are secular and 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.[citation needed]

Community collegesEdit

Community colleges are often two-year colleges. They have open admissions, usually with lower tuition fees than other state or private schools.[citation needed] Graduates receive an associate's degree, such as an Associate of Arts (A.A.), upon graduating. Many students earn an AA at a two-year institution before transferring to a four-year institution to complete studies for a bachelor's degree.[31]

Community colleges have an increased standardization of curricula and adherence to some university guidelines at the colleges, which improve the chances that community college credits are transferred to in-state universities. The aim is to maximize the number of transferred credits, as this forces students to avoid redundant coursework, pay less tuition, putting them at an advantage upon transfer.[citation needed]

The renamed colleges, with cooperation from a university, can offer courses that go beyond the 2-year-level of education that is typical of community colleges. Some colleges offer particular, specialized 4-year bachelor's degrees on behalf of the university.[citation needed]

According to National Student Clearinghouse data, community college enrollment has dropped by 1.6 million students since its peak year of 2010–11. In 2017, 88% of community colleges surveyed were facing declining enrollments.[32] A The New York Times report in 2017 suggested that of the nation's 18 million undergraduates, 40% were attending community college; of these students, 62% were attending community college full-time, 40% of them worked at least 30 hours a week or more, and more than half lived at home to save money.[33]

The College Promise program, which exists in several forms in 24 states, is an effort to encourage community college enrollment.[34]

Liberal arts collegesEdit

Four-year institutions emphasizing the liberal arts are liberal arts colleges, entirely undergraduate institutions and stand-alone. They traditionally emphasize interactive instruction, though 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. They encourage a high level of teacher-student interaction, with 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,[according to whom?] 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.

For-profit collegesEdit

For-profit higher education (known as for-profit college or proprietary education) refers to higher education institutions operated by private, profit-seeking businesses. Students were "attracted to the programs for their ease of enrollment and help obtaining financial aid," but "disappointed with the poor quality of education...."[35][36]University of Phoenix has been the largest for-profit college in the US.[37] Since 2010, for-profit colleges have received greater scrutiny from the US government, state Attorneys General, the media, and scholars.[38] Notable business failures include Corinthian Colleges (2015), ITT Educational Services (2016), Education Management Corporation also known as EDMC (2017), and Education Corporation of America (2018).[39]

Funding of universities and collegesEdit

Sources and oversight of fundsEdit

US Colleges and universities receive their funds from many sources, including federal Title IV funds, state funds, and endowments.[40][41][42] The US Department of Education can delay or stop funding if an institution shows financial instability. One of the mechanisms is called heightened cash monitoring.[43][44]

Heightened Cash MonitoringEdit

Heightened Cash Monitoring is a special administrative status employed by the United States Department of Education to watch more closely over educational instutions such as colleges and universities that have been identified as requiring additional attention from the Department, due to some unusual financial event or history at the institution in connection with its management of student financial aid funds disbursed by the Departent's Federal Student Aid office.[45][46]

For the purposes of receiving reimbursements for student aid, educational institutions in good standing normally interact with the Department of Education under a regime called the Advance Payment Method. For others which are not in good standing, the Department may assign one of two levels of monitoring, called HCM1 ("Heightened Cash Monitoring 1") and HCM2. The less restrictive of the two is HCM1, and involves a certain amount of additional paperwork by the institution and increased monitoring by the Department of Education, the goal being to avoid problems before they occur, and to prevent the institution from ending up on level two. HCM2 is a considerably more onerous level of monitoring than level one. In HCM2, the school must submit a request to the Department every time along with student financial aid documentation, before funds can be issued. Each request is examined at the Department, before any funds are released.[45]

State government austerity and privatizationEdit

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "years of cuts in state funding for public colleges and universities" have made college less affordable and less accountable for students.[47] As a result, public colleges and universities must close campuses, retain fewer professors and staff, and drive up tuition costs. The decline in funding for these public institutions since the Great Recession is nearly "$9 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation."[48] However, OECD figures show that American expenditures per full-time-equivalent student in postsecondary education actually rose slightly in that period, and exceeded those of other OECD nations.[49]

The long-term consequences of a decline in state funding for public colleges and universities are fewer low-income students, more non-residents of the state (non-resident tuition is typically three times resident tuition), and higher tuition.[50]

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.[51]

Richard Vedder and Matthew T. Lambert have chronicled the privatization of state universities in the US.[52][53]

Institutional donors and endowmentsEdit

Large gifts from donors have exceeded $100 million.[54] In a 2019 Inside Higher Education survey, fifteen percent of campus leaders say their institution was offered large financial gifts with inappropriate strings attached.[55] The top 25 US schools have 52% of all endowment wealth[56] and 11 percent of US universities hold roughly 75 percent of the $500 billion in endowment wealth.[57] The five wealthiest universities are:

According to the New York Times, endowments from elite universities have invested billions of dollars in offshore accounts to "skirt taxes and obscure investments that could spark campus protests."[59]

Student costs and fundingEdit

In 2016, average estimated annual student costs (excluding books) were $16,757 at public institutions, $43,065 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,776 at private for-profit institutions. Between 2006 and 2016, prices at public colleges and universities rose 34 percent above inflation, and prices at private nonprofit institutions rose 26 percent above inflation.[60]

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

Students 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. Many[clarification needed] private liberal arts colleges and universities offer full need-based financial aid, so that admitted students will only have to pay as much as their families can afford (based on the university's assessment of their income).[61][62] This can turn some of the most prestigious institutions into the cheapest options for low-income students.[63] 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.[citation needed]

Financial assistance comes in two major 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; loan programs consist of money the student receives to pay for school 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 grant and loan financial assistance programs. Grants to attend public schools are distributed through federal and state governments, and 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).[64] Loans can be obtained publicly through government sponsored loan programs or privately through independent lending institutions.

Grants, scholarships, loans and work study programsEdit

Grant programs and work study programs are divided into two major 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.[65] 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.[66] The federal Pell Grant is a need-based grant available from the federal government. The federal government had two other grants that were 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 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.[64]

Eligibility for work study programs is also determined by information collected on the student's FAFSA.[64]

Many companies offer tuition reimbursement plans for their employees, to make benefits package more attractive, to upgrade the skill levels and to increase retention.[67]

In 2012, total student loans exceeded consumer credit card debt for the first time in history.[68] In late 2016, the total estimated US student loan debt exceeded $1.4 trillion.[69]

Student loans can be divided into two categories: federal student loans and private student loans. Federal student loans may be:

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 former Federal Perkins Loan program expired in 2017.[70]


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and National Student Clearinghouse, show that college enrollment has declined since a peak in 2010–11 and is projected to continue declining or be stagnant for the next two decades.[71][72][73][74][75][76]

US educational statistics are provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the Department of Education. The number of Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions peaked at 4,726 in 2012 with 3,026 4-year institutions and 1,700 2-year institutions: by 2016–17, the total had declined to 4,360 institutions with only 2832 4-year institutions and 1528 2-year institutions existing. [1] The enrollment at postsecondary institutions, participating in Title IV, peaked at just over 21.5 million students in 2010. l[77]

Year Fall enrollment[77] Degree-granting institutions[1]
(all postsecondary) (degree-granting) (total) (4-year) (2-year)
2010-11 21,591,742 21,019,438 4,599 2,870 1,729
2011-12 21,573,798 21,010,590 4,706 2,968 1,738
2012-13 21,148,181 20,644,478 4,726 3,026 1,700
2013-14 20,848,050 20,376,677 4,724 3,039 1,685
2014-15 20,664,180 20,209,092 4,627 3,011 1,616
2015-16 20,400,164 19,988,204 4,583 3,004 1,579
2016-17 20,224,069 19,841,014 4,360 2,832 1,528

A US Department of Education longitudinal survey of 15,000 high school students in 2002 and 2012, 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.[78][79]

Declining enrollment, leadership changes, mergers, and campus closuresEdit

Falling birth rates result in fewer people graduating from high school. The number of high school graduates grew 30% from 1995 to 2013, then peaked at 3.5 million; projections show it holding at that level in the next decade.[80] High school graduates are also discouraged from entering college because most recent college students either fail to graduate or do graduate but are underemployed.[81] Liberal Arts programs have been declining for decades. From 1967 to 2018, college students majoring in the liberal arts declined from 20 percent to 5 percent.[82]

In 2017, the American Council on Education reported that the tenure of college presidents had declined from 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years in 2017.[83]

In 2018, the National Center for Education Statistics projected stagnant enrollment patterns until at least 2027.[73] Demographer Nathan Grawe projected that lower birth rates following the Great Recession of 2008 would result in a 15 percent enrollment loss, beginning in 2026.[71]

In 2019, the National Center for Education Statistics continued to project that higher education enrollment would remain stagnant, but white enrollment would drop 8 percent from 2016 to 2027. The report projected black enrollment to increase by 6 percent, Hispanic enrollment to increase 14 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander enrollment to increase 7 percent, and American Indian/Alaska Native enrollment to decrease 9 percent during the same period.[76] In March 2019, Moody's warned that enrollment declines could lead to more financial problems for the higher education industry.[84] In a 2019 survey by Inside Higher Ed, nearly one in seven college presidents said their campus could close or merge within five years.[55] In April 2019, Connecticut presented a plan to consolidate their community colleges with their accreditor.[85]

In "The Higher Education Apocalypse", U.S. News & World Report education reporter Lauren Camera speculated that recent closings of schools in New England might be the beginning of a rash of college closures.[86] A Chronicle of Higher Education analysis of federal data shows "about half a million students have been displaced by college closures, which together shuttered more than 1,200 campuses."[87]


Colonial era to 19th centuryEdit

Religious denominations established early colleges in order to train ministers. Harvard College was founded by the colonial legislature in 1636. According to historian John Thelin, most instructors were lowly paid 'tutors'.[88] In Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder documented the history of early higher education in the US, including the oppression of indigenous people and enslaved Africans at elite colleges.[89]

Protestants and Catholics opened over hundreds of small denominational colleges in the 19th century. In 1899 they enrolled 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates. Many closed or merged but in 1905 there were over 500 in operation.[90][91] Catholics opened several women's colleges in the early 20th century. 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. College presidents typically enforced strict discipline, and upperclassman enjoyed hazing freshman. Many students were younger than 17, and most colleges also operated a preparatory school. There were no organized sports, or Greek-letter fraternities, but literary societies were active. Tuition was low and scholarships were few. Many of their students were sons of clergymen; most planned professional careers as ministers, lawyers or teachers.[92]

The nation's small colleges helped young men make the transition from rural farms to complex urban occupations. These schools promoted upward mobility by preparing ministers and providing towns with a core of community leaders. Elite colleges became increasingly exclusive and contributed little upward social mobility. By concentrating on the offspring of wealthy families, and ministers, elite Eastern colleges such as Harvard, played a role in the formation of a Northeastern elite.[93]

Catholic colleges and universitiesEdit

The Main Building at the University of Notre Dame, the best known Catholic university in the United States

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities was founded in 1899 and continues to facilitate the exchange of information and methods.[94] 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.[95][96][97]

Timeline of key federal legislationEdit

20th centuryEdit

At the beginning of the 20th century, less than 1,000 colleges with 160,000 students existed in the US. 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 campuses with 40,000 more students, with networks of regional campuses around the state. In turn, regional campuses broke away and became separate universities.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Major new trends included the development of the junior colleges. They were usually set up by City school systems starting in the 1920s.[99] 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.[100]

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-year 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.[101][102]

College students were involved in social movements long before the 20th century, but the most dramatic student movements rose in the 1960s. In the 1960s, students organized for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, students led movements for women's rights and gay rights, as well as protests against South African apartheid.[103]

While for-profit colleges originated during Colonial times, growth in these schools was most apparent from the 1980s to about 2011. For-profit college enrollment, however, has declined significantly since 2011, after several federal investigations. For-profit colleges were criticized for predatory marketing and sales practices.[104] The failures of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute were the most remarkable closings.[105] In 2018, the documentary Fail State chronicled the boom and bust of for-profit colleges, highlighting the abuses that led to their downfall.[106]

21st centuryEdit

Changing technology, mergers and closings, and politics have resulted in dramatic changes in US higher education during the 21st century.

Online education and MOOCsEdit

Online education has grown in the early 21st century. More than 6.3 million students in the U.S. took at least one online course in fall 2016.[107] While online attendance has increased, confidence among chief academic officers has decreased from 70.8 percent in 2015 to 63.3 percent in 2016.[108] In 2017, about 15% of all students attended exclusively online, and competition for online students has been increasing[109]

By 2018, more than one hundred short-term coding bootcamps existed in the US. Programs were available at Harvard University's extension school and the extension schools at Georgia Tech, University of Pennsylvania, Cal Berkeley, Northwestern, UCLA, University of North Carolina, University of Texas, George Washington, Vanderbilt University, and Rutgers through Trilogy Education Services.[110][111]

In 2019, researchers at George Mason University concluded that online education has "contributed to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to improve affordability".[112][113][114]

A MOOC is a massive open online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. It became popular in 2010–14. 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.[115] Robert Zemsky (2014), of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education 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."[116] In 2019, researchers at MIT found that MOOCs had completion rates of 3 percent and that the number of people taking these courses has been declining since 2012–13.[117]

Online programs for many universities are often managed by privately owned companies called OPMs. The OPMs include 2U, HotChalk and iDesign. Trace Urdan, managing director at Tyton Partners, "estimates that the market for OPMs and related services will be worth nearly $8 billion by 2020." [118]

Financial difficulties, mergers and downsizingEdit

Hundreds of colleges are expected to close or merge, according to research from Ernst & Young.[119] The US Department of Education publishes a monthly list of campus and learning site closings. Typically there are 300 to 1000 closings per year.[120][121] Notable college closings include for-profit Corinthian Colleges (2015), ITT Technical Institute (2016), Brightwood College and Virginia College(2018).[122][123] Private college closings include Wheelock College (2018) and Green Mountain College (2019).[124]

In December 2017, Moody's credit rating agency downgraded the US higher education outlook from stable to negative, "citing financial strains at both public and private four-year institutions."[125] In June 2018, Moody's released data on declining college enrollments and constraints, noting that tuition pricing would suppress tuition revenue growth.[126]

Other businesses related to higher education have also had financial difficulties. In May 2019, two academic publishers, Cengage and McGraw Hill, merged.[127]

Protests and political clashesEdit

Student protests and clashes between left and right appeared on several US campuses in 2017.[128][129][130][131][132] On August 11, 2017, White nationalists and members of the alt-right rallied at the University of Virginia, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.[133] The following day, one person died during protests in Charlottesville.[134] Following this event, speaking engagements by Richard Spencer were canceled at Texas A&M University and the University of Florida.[135]

Admission processEdit

Students can apply to some colleges using the Common Application. 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, grade point average, college application, essay, and letters of recommendation. The SAT's usefulness in the admissions process is controversial. It may or may not be biased, and it may or may not serve as a check on grade inflation in secondary schools. Nevertheless, some colleges are making the SAT optional for applying students.[136][137]

Legacies and large donorsEdit

Admissions at elite schools include preferences to alumni and large investors.[138][139][140][141] Legislators have asked for transparency with donors and college admissions, but there are several groups that oppose it.[142] Inside Higher Education's 2018 survey of college admissions directors found that 42 percent of private colleges and universities used legacy status as a factor in admissions decisions.[143]

International study and student exchangeEdit

Columbia University Low Memorial Library

In 2016-17, 332,727 US students studied abroad for credit. Most took place in Europe, with 40 percent of students studying in five countries: the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany.[144] The US is the most popular country in the world for 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%).[145] 671,616 foreign students enrolled in American colleges in 2008–09.[145][146] This figure rose to 723,277 in 2010–11. The largest number, 157,558, came from China.[147] 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".[148]

Government coordinationEdit

Coordination institutionsEdit

Every state has an entity designed to promote coordination and collaboration between higher education institutions. A few are listed: Alabama Commission on Higher Education, California Postsecondary Education Commission, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, The Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education.

Academic labor and adjunctificationEdit

Until the mid-1970s, when federal expenditures for higher education fell, there were routinely more tenure-track jobs than Ph.D. graduates. In the 1980s and 1990s there were significant changes in the economics of academic life. Despite rising tuition rates and growing university revenues, professorial positions were replaced with poorly paid adjunct positions and graduate-student labor.[149]

With academic institutions producing Ph.D.s in greater numbers than the number of tenure-track positions they intended to create, administrators were cognizant of the economic effects of this arrangement. 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".[150] Aggravating the problem, those few academics who do achieve tenure are often determined to stay put as long as possible, refusing lucrative incentives to retire early.[151]

Aronowitz ascribed this problem to the economic restructuring of academia as a whole, stating that "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."[152]}} In 2017, 17% of faculty was tenured. 89% of adjunct professors worked at more than one job. An adjunct was paid an average of $2,700 for a single course. 31% of the faculty lived below the poverty level. While student-faculty ratios remained the same since 1975, administrator-student ratio went from 1–84 to 1–68. student-professional staff ratios fell from 50:1 to 21:1. The money that colleges received went into administration and staff and not teaching.[153]

Glenn Harlan Reynolds[who?] stated that "Academics seem to think that the business world is in a feudal environment characterized by huge status differences and abusive treatment of underlings. They think that because, to be honest, that's a pretty good characterization of...the modern university, where serfs, in the form of adjunct professors toil in the vineyards." [153] In 2018, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported that 73 percent of all faculty positions were filled by adjuncts.[154] The UK Guardian also detailed the adjunct crisis in "Outclassed: The secret life of inequality." The article noted that a "2015 survey by Pacific Standard found that 62% of adjuncts made less than $20,000 a year." [155]

Adjunct organizations include the Coalition for Contingent (COCAL), the New Faculty Majority, and SEIU Faculty Forward.[156][157] The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Teamsters Union have also organized contingent academic labor.[158][159]


College athletics in the US is a two-tiered system. The first tier includes sports sanctioned by one of the collegiate sport governing bodies. Some of these collegiate sports governing organizations like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are umbrella non-profit organizations that govern multiple sports. Additionally, the first tier is characterized by selective participation, since only the elite programs in their sport are able to participate; some colleges offer athletic scholarships to intercollegiate sports competitors. The second tier includes intramural and recreational sports clubs, which are available to more of the student body. Competition between student clubs from different colleges, not organized by and therefore not representing the institutions or their faculties, may also be called "intercollegiate" athletics or simply college sports.[160]

The largest collegiate sport governing body in the first tier is the NCAA, which regulates athletes of 1,268 institutions across the US and Canada. The NCAA uses a three-division system of Division I, Division II, and Division III. Division I and Division II schools can offer scholarships to athletes for playing a sport, while Division III schools cannot offer any athletic scholarships.[161] Division I schools, which generally are larger than either Division II or III institutions, must further meet additional requirements: among them, they must field teams in at least seven sports for men and seven for women or six for men and eight for women, with at least two team sports for each gender.[162] Each division is then further divided into several conferences for regional league play. The names of these conferences, such as the Ivy League, may be used to refer to their respective schools as a group beyond a sports context.[163]

College sports are popular on regional and national scales, at times competing with professional championships for prime broadcast, print coverage. In most states, the person with the highest taxpayer-provided base salary is a public college football or basketball coach. This does not include coaches at private colleges.[164] The average university sponsors at least 20 different sports and offers a wide variety of intramural sports. There are approximately 400,000 men and women student-athletes that participate in sanctioned athletics each year.[165]

Issues confronting higher education in the United StatesEdit

Entrance routes and procedures for choosing a college or university, their rankings and the financial value of degrees are being discussed. This leads to discussions on socioeconomic status and race ethnicity and gender. From the student perspective, financial issues include college affordability, [166] the wide ranges of remuneration and underemployment among the various degrees,[167][168][169][170] rising tuition and increasing student loan debt, austerity in state and local spending, the adjunctification of academic labor,[171][172] student poverty and hunger,[173] along with credentialism and educational inflation.[174]

Sociological issues include unfair admission procedures and academic cheating, [175][140]

Cost and financesEdit

Graduation ratesEdit

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.[176]

Academic standardsEdit

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. [177] On average, private colleges have been more subject to this phenomenon than public colleges, as have the humanities compared to Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, post-graduate courses compared to undergraduate courses, and courses taught by women compared to courses taught by men. [178] 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.[179]

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.[180] Disruptive, immature or otherwise irresponsible behavior on the part of some of these students can impede the learning experiences of other students.[181][182]

In addition to the skills that are specific to any degree, employers are looking for evidence of critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, teamworking skills, information literacy, ethical judgment, decision-making skills, fluency in speaking and writing in English, problem solving skills, and a wide knowledge of liberal arts and sciences. However, employers consider the typical graduate to be more or less deficient in all of these areas. [183]

Political viewsEdit

Research has been done since the 1970s into the political views of faculty members and whether this influences the student experience. Lecturers are more liberal supporting the Democratic than the general population.[184][185] 58% of Americans thought that college professors' political bias was a "serious problem", with this concerning 91% of "very conservative" adults, but only 3% of liberals.[186] Research showed this did not affect their performance.[187]

Free speech on the campus is assumed. Some universities have been hit by lawsuits from right-wing groups who claim they have not been given equal access to facilities.[188]

The Anti-Defamation League verified more than 300 incidents of white nationalist hate propaganda at more than 200 college and university campuses in 2018.[189]

Access issuesEdit

Geographic considerationsEdit

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 higher education expert Jeffrey Selingo.[190]

Skepticism about higher educationEdit

A 2017 poll funded by House Majority PAC found that white working-class voters were skeptical about higher education. The key findings: 57% said a college degree "would result in more debt and little likelihood of landing a good-paying job." 83% said a college degree was "no longer any guarantee of success in America."[citation needed]

Declining accessibility and high costEdit

According to an analysis of social mobility and higher education in the US by Equality of Opportunity, "colleges that offered many low-income students pathways to success are becoming less accessible over time."[191]

According to a Public Agenda poll, only 43% of Americans say private, nonprofit universities and colleges are worth the cost.[192]

Thousands of US college students rely on sponsors to make ends meet.[193][194]

Student welfareEdit

Student debtEdit

One of its dysfunctions of higher education is rapidly growing student loan debt that may take decades to repay, even if they never graduate.[195][196][197] Several student debt groups have been created since 2014, after the Debt Collective paid off student loans for 3,700 Everest College students.[198]

Ending affirmative actionEdit

According to multiple sources, the Trump administration's Department of Justice is conducting investigations to ensure that African Americans and Latinos are not favored over whites and Asians.[199][200] In a 2019 Pew poll, 73 percent of a representative sample of Americans said that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions.[201]

Alcohol and drug abuseEdit

Alcohol and drug abuse are serious concerns on US college campuses.[citation needed] They are related to other campus social problems, such as fraternity hazing. [202] and sexual assault. [203]

According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, "more than one-third of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 engaged in binge drinking as against 1 in 4 adults in the past month; about 1 in 5 used an illicit drug (which includes marajuana) in the past month." The report added that "on an average day during the past year, from about 9.0 million full-time college students 2,179 drank alcohol for the first time, and 1,326 used an illicit drug for the first time." [204]

Sexual assaultEdit

Campus sexual assault is hard to quantify. [205] Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience some form of sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. [206] There is concern that colleges have been overly aggressive in enforcing Title IX regulations. They have empowered investigators who routinely presume the guilt of suspects, assign to the man full responsibility for the outcome of any social interaction, and minutely regulate personal relationships.[207][208] The Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era measures to enhance the response to these concerns.[209]

Student poverty and hungerEdit

Research by Sara Goldrick-Rab and others found that more than half of all community-college students surveyed struggle with food insecurity.[173] A follow up study found more that a third of college students don't always have enough to eat and lack stable housing. Nine percent of those surveyed were homeless.[210]

Higher education and mental healthEdit

Studies[which?] suggest that the stress of college negatively affects the mental health of college students.[211][212] In an analysis of 165 studies and news stories, researchers at North Carolina State and Penn State University found the most common contributing factors to students' mental health challenges were race, violence and sexual assault.[213]

An American Psychiatric Association survey "Healthy Minds" found that the rate of mental health treatment among college students increased from 19 percent in 2007 to 34 percent by 2017. The percentage of students who reported lifetime diagnoses increased from 22 percent to 36 percent. The prevalence of depression and suicidality also increased, while stigma about mental health decreased. The web-based survey consisted of 155,026 students from 196 college campuses. [214]

Latino college students are more likely to have a greater history of depression than other ethnic groups.[215] Mental health stigma is a contributing factor of anxiety in Latino college students and include having common beliefs such as those with mental illness being perceived as dangerous, not willing to recover, and at fault for their own illness.[216] A reason study states  that The study reveals that the sample of Latino students perceive that budget cuts are affecting them in specific ways.This includes diminishing access, reduction of support services, and delay in completion of their educational objectives.[217] Research shows that through advancing a model of intersectionality that recognizes how social identities are constituted within multiple arenas of social interactions, then it helps in addressing how the relationships between Latino social identities shape Latino educational outcomes and educational equity.[218]

Interest groupsEdit

Interest groups in US higher education include philanthropic foundations, trade unions, trade associations, think tanks, and businesses associated with higher education.[219] Philanthropic organizations include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Charles Koch Foundation. Trade unions tied to higher education include the American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers, and Service Employees International Union. Trade associations: include the American Council on Education, American Association of Community Colleges, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and Association of American Universities.[220] Think tanks reporting on higher education include the Lumina Foundation, Center for American Progress, Brookings Institution, Third Way, and Cato Institute.[221] Businesses associated with higher education include student loan lenders, student loan debt collectors, academic publishers, and online program management companies. Notable companies include Wells Fargo, Discover Financial Services, Navient, Sallie Mae, Pearson, and Prentice Hall.[219][222]

See alsoEdit


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Further readingEdit

  • Cole, Jonathan R. (2016). Toward a More Perfect University. PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1610392655.

External linksEdit