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What most people get wrong about college students

Students at New York University's commencement in 2007. The typical college student isn't a fresh-faced high school graduate anymore.
Students at New York University's commencement in 2007. The typical college student isn't a fresh-faced high school graduate anymore.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The movies and the media portray the typical college student as a fresh-faced high-school graduate, living on campus, going to college full-time. They probably ran an admissions gauntlet to get there. They might be taking on a mountain of debt.

Minus the debt, that was the college experience for many upper middle-class Americans a generation ago. And it's still the experience for most of their kids. But it's not typical, and hasn't been for a long time. Those students make up at most 29 percent of the college-going population.

The typical college student actually looks more like this.

They're probably not in the competitive admissions race


The competitive college admission process can seem like life or death for students who are going through it. But those students are a tiny slice of the next year's college freshmen.

Their experience isn't representative: 84 percent of public colleges admit at least half of all students who apply.

That's just four-year colleges — community colleges take virtually all students as part of their mission. Outside the public sector, for-profit colleges rarely have admissions criteria either. (A third of college students attend for-profit or community colleges.)

Even the vast majority of private nonprofit colleges aren't especially selective: Just 20 percent accept less than half of their applicants. Colleges with acceptance rates in the teens or single digits are overrepresented in the media, but they're outliers in American higher education.

They're probably over 21


The average age nationwide is 24. Most college students are still under 30, and demographics vary significantly from campus to campus. Four-year students at public and private nonprofit colleges, especially those attending full-time, are mostly still in their late teens or early 20s. But older students are much more prevalent among students getting four-year degrees at for-profit colleges.

The "college experience" looks a lot different for students who aren't coming directly out of high school. Most often aren't interested in living in a dorm (a quarter of all college students now have children or other dependents of their own) and their financial needs stretch much further than meals in the dining hall and quarters for laundry.

They don't live in dorms


Move-in day at Northeastern University in Boston. Students living on campus are the minority among college students. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Just 14 percent of all college students lived on campus in 2008, according to Education Department data. Far more, 24 percent, still live at home with parents or other relatives. (That number includes part-time students, who are much less likely to live on campus — but full-time students are still the majority of the American college population, and most of them aren't living in campus housing either.)

Many aren't ready for college-level work


A calculus problem. Ricky Carioti/Washington Post/Getty Images

In some states, the proportion of students who aren't ready for credit-bearing courses in college is as high as 50 percent. Either because they're not going to college straight out of high school, or because they didn't get a particularly good high school education, they need remedial courses. The proportion is higher at community colleges (where it's over 50 percent in some places) than at four-year colleges. But even at four-year colleges, 1 in 5 students could need remediation.

They're taking out more (or less) debt than you think


Seventy percent of students now borrow to get a four-year degree. That's up dramatically in the past two decades: Less than half of students who started college in 1992 needed to take out loans. But most students still borrow less than the six-figure horror stories that predominate in the media. The average student with loans borrowed $29,400 for a four-year degree. Students with six-figure debt are a tiny minority, less than 2 percent of all undergraduates who borrow.

They're increasingly taking classes online


A student works on two computer screens at once at Mass Bay Community College in a computer science course that is designed in conjunction with online learning from MIT. Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

At least one-third of college students - 32 percent - have now taken at least one online class. (That number is from 2011, so the actual percentage is probably even higher.) Employers support online classes for older students, but are skeptical about whether they're a good wholesale replacement for a college education.

We don't really know if they graduate


Students at a graduation ceremony at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pam Berry/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The federal graduation rate counts students who start college for the first time, attend full-time in their first semester, and graduate from the same college where they started. According to that measure, about 59 percent of college students graduate within six years. Traditional colleges once liked counting that way: Those are the students most likely to actually earn a degree. But it leaves out much of the growing nontraditional student population — part-time students, transfer students, students coming back after dropping out earlier in life.

Almost 17 percent of students starting college for the first time in fall 2007 were part-time students. About one-third of all students transfer at some point during their college career. The federal figure doesn't count students in either category.

A report from the National Student Clearinghouse using its own data found that the graduation rate for all students, including part-time students, who started college in 2007 was actually slightly lower than the federal count: about 56 percent. Another 15 percent of students were still enrolled in college six years after they started.