A Snapshot of Today’s College Students

Published Nov 09, 2023

NPSAS:20 analysis reveals the diversity of today’s students and where they attend college.   

Understanding the experiences and backgrounds of today’s college students is a crucial step in addressing inequitable outcomes, tailoring support services, and allocating resources in ways that shape a higher education system that works for every student. New analysis of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:20) reveals the diversity of today’s college students, and the types of institutions they attend. These nationally representative data, the most recent available, reflect undergraduate experiences in the 2019-20 academic year and provide insights not available from other data sources. 

 Who are today’s students?

Snapshot of Undergraduate Enrollment in the 2019-20 Academic Year

NPSAS provides information on students’ self-reported race and ethnicity, across six categories. These data show that students who identify as Black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or American Indian or Alaska Native make up the majority (52 percent) of undergraduate enrollment. Eleven percent of students were born outside of the U.S. and 23 percent are the children of immigrants. Approximately one third of undergraduates (31 percent) reported that neither parent had ever attended college.  

Students’ financial backgrounds, family circumstances, and life experiences also shape their postsecondary education. More than half of students (56 percent) have family incomes under $50,000. Forty-one percent of students work full-time (30 or more hours per week) while attending school, and 73 percent work at least one job while enrolled. Thirty percent are over the age of 25.  

Today’s students pursue their postsecondary goals while balancing other responsibilities:. Forty-one percent of undergraduates attend college part-time and 19 percent care for dependents while enrolled.   

Where are the enrollment disparities? 

Undergraduate Enrollment by Sector and Race, 2019-20

Black, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native undergraduates along with those from families living with low incomes attend public and private non-profit four-year institutions at lower rates than their White, Asian American, and higher income peers. About seven in ten Asian American students and almost two thirds of White students attend four-year colleges, compared to only about half of Black, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native students. Additionally, two-thirds of undergraduates from the highest income backgrounds attend four-year colleges, compared to only 55 percent of those from the lowest income backgrounds.

Undergraduate Enrollment by Sector and Income, 2019-20 

NPSAS:20 data also reveal stark differences in enrollment at private, for-profit colleges and public two-year colleges. Black, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and American Indiana and Alaska Native students are more likely to attend for-profit institutions than Asian-American and White students. More than one in ten Black, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and American Indian and Alaska Native students enroll in private, for-profit institutions, compared to only one in twenty (5 percent) Asian American and White students. Black, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students are also more likely to attend public two-year colleges than Asian American and White students.  

How can data support student success?

Given these student demographics, institutions should leverage their available data to better understand the experiences of their students and implement targeted interventions that support student success. For example, students who work full-time can benefit from flexible course schedules that include evening and weekend options. Institutions can create more inclusive and supportive systems that benefit all students, regardless of their background or circumstance. IHEP’s Postsecondary Data GPS can help institutions better utilize data to improve students’ opportunities and promote more equitable outcomes. The resource includes a guidebook and interactive template.  

Federal policy changes can also help meet the needs of today’s students. Investments in federal need-based financial aid programs, such as the Pell Grant, can improve affordability for students living with low incomes. Similarly, federal funding for on-campus childcare services can help institutions support students who are parenting while pursuing a postsecondary credential.  

This post is the second in a series examining NPSAS:20 data. Read the first post which explores the gap between what families can afford and what they must pay to attend college.