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Measuring Equity Gaps in Enrollment
The starting point in measuring — and ultimately achieving — equity in higher education is enrollment. No one can attain a degree without first getting access.
The Clearinghouse’s enrollment data are based on data submissions from more than 3,600 higher education institutions in the United States. These institutions represent 97% of the nation’s enrollments in degree-granting institutions. Learn more about Clearinghouse data here.
The interactive graphics below show enrollment over time for different institution types and student demographics, as well as high school income level and school urbanicity. These views make it easier to identify trends and compare data for the populations of interest to your institution or organization.
To view specific categories or groups in a chart, simply select the name of the category or group to hide or display it.
Across institution types, more female students enroll in postsecondary education than their male counterparts. Over the past decade, total enrollment declined for all genders, most significantly at two-year public and four-year for-profit institutions.
A note on the graphic above: We chose to begin by highlighting enrollment trends by gender and institution type instead of by race/ethnicity because of limitations in our historical race/ethnicity data collection. Although most postsecondary institutions have been sharing race/ethnicity data with the Clearinghouse since 2015, we do not yet have a metric (such as the enrollment rate for specific racial and ethnic groups) that would enable a meaningful comparison of enrollment between these groups. The metric we now have — measuring total enrollment by race/ethnicity (the same metric used for gender in the above graphic) — would demonstrate growth in the total population and in the number of institutions submitting race/ethnicity data to us, but it would not enable meaningful analysis of equity trends.
Women have outpaced men in college enrollment for decades. In recent years, enrollment has declined for both men and women, but the drop in male enrollments has been more pronounced, widening this gap.
Since the 2008–2009 academic year, the Clearinghouse has given institutions the option of identifying race and ethnicity when reporting enrollments. Institutions’ voluntary submission of this information has increased every year, boosting efforts to assess equity.
As of 2020, White students continued to make up a majority of enrollments. However, Black, Hispanic, and Asian students increased their respective shares of enrollment from 2011 to 2020. These comparisons require caution, however: In 2011, institutions reported race and ethnicity for less than 22% of the enrollment data submitted to the Clearinghouse.
Community colleges have unique challenges and opportunities with respect to educational equity. These factors warrant examining community college data separately in addition to including them in analyses of higher education institutions overall. Upon review, note that in 2011, institutions reported race and ethnicity for less than 22% of the enrollment data submitted to the Clearinghouse.
A Clearer Picture
Viewing basic enrollment trends, such as those shown in the graphics above, is only the first step.
Many factors affect college enrollment, so it’s important not only to analyze the data by student demographics and institutional type but also to understand the potential systemic barriers to staying in school.
This deeper analysis can identify specific barriers to — and opportunities for — achieving equity in education.
Income and Urbanicity
In the High School Benchmarks report, the Clearinghouse analyzes college enrollment rates by the urbanicity (urban, suburban, rural character) and income level and of the high schools students graduated from.
Although we have only a limited ability to look at these characteristics at the individual student level, we can gain some insights into these factors by combining publicly available information and the data that high schools provide to the Clearinghouse.
Thousands of high schools participate in the Clearinghouse’s StudentTracker® for High Schools service to receive college access and success outcomes for their own graduates. We combine these data with information about high school urbanicity and high school income level (from the National Center for Education Statistics).
It is important to look at disaggregated data to help us identify disparities. Often, more than one level of disaggregation is needed to unpack students’ intersectional characteristics. If you’re ready to dig deeper and start exploring student access, progression, and outcomes based on multiple intersecting categories, such as race, age, gender, first-generation status, and part-time or full-time student status, consider joining the Clearinghouse’s Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP).
Interested in learning more about equity gaps in enrollment?
- Spring 2022 Current Term Enrollment Estimates
- Fall 2021 Enrollment Report (Covid-19 Impact)
- The Consequences of Fewer People Going to College
- Clearinghouse blog posts on Enrollment
- Understanding Enrollment Declines – Inside Higher Ed
- Thinking Beyond “Summer Melt” Enrollment Drops – Diverse Issues in Higher Education
- Enrollments Continued to Decline at Two- and Four-Year Institutions – Diverse Issues in Higher Education
- Design for equity, enrollments will follow – American Association of Community Colleges
- Enrollment Data Visualizations by Race/Ethnicity and Gender – National Center for Education Statistics
A note on racial/ethnic designations: Racial and ethnic categories and designations change over time. The Clearinghouse continually examines the way it categorizes and labels different races/ethnicities.
For purposes of clarity, two current designations deserve mention here:
- Hispanic: In recent years, the Clearinghouse has also used LatinX when discussing individuals of Latin heritage. However, Hispanic is the label most frequently used in data collected or reported over the past decade. For the sake of consistency in comparing data, we have opted to use Hispanic across this website.
- Additional races/ethnicities: This label may comprise American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Two or More Races, and International Students.
Learn more about the Clearinghouse data collection, management, and limitations here.
Persistence is the best metric we have for understanding whether groups of students stay in school. This measure shows how many students return to college at any institution for their second year.
Rates of degree attainment are the final internal check on institutional equity. Completion rates track the credentials students earn within six years after they first enroll in a college or university.