Unequal Progress

College participation rates for young adults are increasing for most demographic groups, but so are the gaps between some groups.
March 31, 2005

Young adults -- those aged 18-24 -- typically account for more than 60 percent of undergraduate enrollments. So trends within this group have a broad impact on higher education.

Data released Wednesday offered mixed news for those who are pushing for colleges to enroll a broader cross-section of students. Participation rates are up for just about all groups, but the gaps between groups grew, too.

The data covered the years 1974-2003 and were released by the National Center for Education Statistics. In terms of gender, the survey found that the participation rates (those who are enrolled in or have completed a postsecondary education) rose for both men and women. But during the time period covered by the study, women outpaced men.

In 1974, 38 percent of men and 33 percent of women in this age group participated in higher education. But by 2003, the figures were 51 percent for women and 41 percent for men.

Analyzing the figures by race, the statistics show increases for white, black and Hispanic students, but also growing gaps between black and white students. In 1974, the white participation rate was 38 percent, the black rate was 26 percent, and the Hispanic rate was 22 percent. By 2003, the rates had increased to 53, 38 and 28 percent.

That means that the gap between white and black students increased from 12 to 15 percentage points (a gap that the Education Department report said may not be statistically significant), and the gap between white and Hispanic students increased from 16 to 25 percentage points.

The study also looked at minority populations by gender and found that black and Hispanic women outgained black and Hispanic men during this period. The participation rate of Hispanic men, in fact, decreased from 23 to 22 percentfrom 1974 to 2003.


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