Forbes. September 20, 2013. When most people in business, the media, or politics talk about “college,” they are referring to tree-lined idylls filled with prestigious libraries and terrible dining hall food. They are talking about the four-year schools, usually private nonprofit ones like Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford in which students live in dormitories, frolic in the quadrangles, and enmesh themselves among the great books under the tutelage of the greatest intellects.
When I talk about college, I often am thinking of these schools, too – after all, I attended one of them, although I did not frolic up to my full potential. But the experience for most college students is nothing at all like this. More often than not, colleges are not peaceful havens in the woods but rather, as Zachary Karabell writes, “one- and two-story industrial concrete buildings where millions of immigrants, middle-aged women, and lower-middle-class students are trying to obtain the degree that they hope will give them that ineluctable edge in the thrivingly insecure economy of the United States today.”
Karabell (who has degrees from Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard) wrote those words in 1998.* With my colleague Clare McCann, I pulled together some data about what the actual college student looks like. The data show that the trend that Karabell pointed out 15 years ago is even truer today. (All references here are to undergraduate education and are derived from the Department of Education’s IPEDS, NPSAS, or Digest of Education data and use the most recent years for which data is available).
In 2009-2010, only 16% of college students attended a private, not-for-profit four-year institution. This includes well-regarded Ivy League schools, small liberal arts colleges, and religious institutions that range from tiny to massive depending on how far away from the coast you are. 72% of college students attended a public university. Overall, the largest group of students is neither four-year public college students nor four-year private non-profit students but two-year public school students. Nearly four in ten college students are community college students. More than twice as many students were enrolled at two-year public colleges than at private, nonprofit ones – despite the fact that the programs are half as long.
At private, for-profit universities, which account for about 11.5% of all undergraduate enrollment, the picture of a typical student is even more different. The median age of a student at a for-profit university is 27, while the median number of children per student one. In other words, the average student at a for-profit school is a parent as well as a student and is probably far too busy to even think about a frolic.
Although it is easy to imagine ivy-walled dorms and young, eager students staying up late in residential lounges to discuss things they are unqualified to talk about, this image also applies to very few students. Only 14% of all college students – or 25% of full-time students – live on campus. Meanwhile, 24% of students (in both the full-time and part-time statistics) live at home with their parents. In other words, just as many students are typical on-campus college students as are commuting to school from their parents’ house.
The vast majority of students don’t graduate on time, either. In fact, most students don’t graduate at all. For new first-time, full-time students in the class of 2009 at four-year institutions, only 39% completed a degree in four years. 58% completed a degree within six years. At two-year colleges, 31% of the 2008 cohort graduated within three years of starting. At two-year public colleges, which educate the greatest share of students, this number was only 20%.
Why, then, do we continue to think of college more as “Animal House” than “Community”? Perhaps one of the answers lies in the fact that our views are related to our own experiences – and many of our leaders have attended frolic-heavy institutions. Of the 5 schools that produced four or more current U.S. senators, all of them are elite private, nonprofit, four-year universities (9 out of the 13 schools that have multiple undergraduate alumni in the Senate are of this category as well; the other four are large four-year public universities in the South).
College is not one singular beast. If anything, it is a variety of beasts – very few of which resemble what many of us, or many of those in positions of leadership, have ever had a chance to wrestle.