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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Record’ College Enrollment Rates?

President Barack Obama credited his administration for what he said are “record … college enrollment rates.” But the most recent federal data show that rates of enrollment are not a record and have not improved much compared with the year before Obama was president.

Obama made that statement on Aug. 15 at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser where he talked about progress the country has made since he became president.

Obama, Aug. 15: It’s important because we have made extraordinary progress over the last eight years on a whole range of issues. … We are seeing record graduation rates in high school — and college enrollment rates.

It’s true that the U.S. is “seeing record graduation rates in high school,” as Obama said.

“In school year 2013-14, the adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) for public high schools rose to an all-time high of 82 percent,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s the percentage of ninth-grade students who graduated within four years.

But the overall number of people enrolled in college declined for four straight years, from 2010 to 2014, and the latest rate of enrollment for 2015 is not a record, either.


The immediate college enrollment rate was 69.2 percent in 2015, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s down from a high of 70.1 percent in 2009, and only 0.6 percentage points higher than the 68.6 percent in 2008 before Obama took office.

The immediate college enrollment rate is defined as the percentage of those ages 16 to 24 who complete high school (including GED recipients) and enroll in two- or four-year colleges in the fall immediately following graduation.

The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in degree-granting colleges or universities also wasn’t a record as of 2014.

That year, 40 percent of individuals in that age group were attending a two- or four-year college. However, the percentage was higher — 42 percent — in 2011, and the 39.6 percent enrolled in 2008 was only 0.4 percentage points lower than the most recent enrollment rate.

At the fundraising event, Obama also commented on the improvement of the U.S. economy, which experts say has contributed to the decline in college enrollments.

“Historically, as the economy improves and Americans get back to work, college enrollment declines,” Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell told CNN Money in May.

So a record percentage of students are now graduating from high school on time, but the rate at which those same students are enrolling in college — even compared with 2008 — isn’t quite record-breaking, nor has it improved much.