US College Students More Diverse – and Debt-Laden, Study Finds

(CN) – The ranks of undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities grew exponentially over the last two decades, spurred largely by students of color and those from low-income families according to a Pew study released Wednesday.

While the share of racial or ethnic minority students has increased in all forms of postsecondary education, the country’s economic climate means more students are also taking out loans and not working while enrolled.

About 20 million students were enrolled in undergraduate education in the 2015-16 academic year, up from 16.7 million in 1995-96, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.

A Pew Research Center analysis of the data 47% of enrolled students were nonwhite in the 2015-16, up from 29% two decades earlier.

In 2015, 31% of enrolled students came from low-income families, the study found, while 21% were poor in the 1995-96 academic year.

Enrollment data shows that the number of undergraduates from higher-income families has remained stable since 1996 while the share of students from middle-income families has declined, the study found.

Researchers attribute the surge of minority undergraduates to the increase in Hispanic student enrollment since 1996, which more than doubled at four-year colleges and universities from 6% to 16% in 2016.

“Hispanics are now the largest minority group among students at minimally selective four-year institutions and are even with the black share of enrollment at moderately selective four-year institutions,” the study said.

Public two-year colleges and less selective four-year colleges and universities saw the largest spikes in numbers of undergraduates who are low income and of color.

The study differentiates poor and near-poor students and dependent and independent.

Dependent students are those who are younger than 24 and assumed to be receiving financial support from their family. Independent students are classified as 24 or older and who are likely receiving little or no financial support from their parents.

At public two-year colleges, the number of dependant students has more than doubled from 13% in 1996 to 27% in 2016, the study found.

The pattern of student borrowing has also shifted since 1996. That year, 33% of poorer students were most likely to take out loans while only 8% of higher-income students did so.

In 2016, the relationship between class and likelihood of borrowing became more muddled. The study found 38% of low-income students took out loans, as did 30% of higher-income students.

“Students attending four-year colleges and universities are more likely to borrow than community college students,” the study said. “But, with the exception of students in the private for-profits, the share of students borrowing has increased by about 10 percentage points at both two-year and four-year institutions.”

Undergrads are also less likely to work while enrolled, the study found.

In 2016, 36% of undergraduates were not employed – compared with 20% in 2000 – while the share students working full-time dropped significantly, from 38% in 2000 to 25% in 2016.

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