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Perception vs. Reality: The Typical College Student

About This Work

We tested 1,600 Americans on their knowledge of higher education students. Americans were asked the age of a typical college student, what kind of institutions students attend, their enrollment intensity, and whether or not students complete the degrees they begin. Here's what they said, and what we know.

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*Note: Percentages that appear after answering each question reflect the responses of other users, not the responses of survey respondents.



63 percent of Americans believe the average college student is 20 years old.


The average college student is 26.4 years of age.

<iframe width="900" height="900" src="https://newamericafoundation.github.io/newamerica-data-projects/?project=&vizId=varying-degrees__avg-student-age"></iframe>

U.S. Higher Education Population as 1,000 Students (by Age)

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:12).

Full-Time vs. Part-Time


53 percent of Americans believe most college students attend school full time.


A majority of all students (50.5 percent) attend school exclusively full-time.

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U.S. Higher Education Population as 1,000 Students (by Full-Time vs. Part-Time)

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:12).

Institution Type


57 percent of Americans believe there are more students in two-year and technical programs than there are in four-year bachelor degree programs.


More students (40.1 percent) attend a four-year institution than a public two-year institution (38.1 percent).

<iframe width="900" height="900" src="https://newamericafoundation.github.io/newamerica-data-projects/?project=&vizId=varying-degrees__avg-student-school-type"></iframe>

U.S. College Population as 1,000 Students (by Institution Type)

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:12).



46 percent of Americans believe most people who go to college finish with a degree.


Without better data, it’s difficult to find a definitive answer to this question. We do know that 59 percent of full-time, first-time students at four-year institutions completed a bachelor’s or equivalent degree within six years, and that 32 percent of full-time, first-time students at two-year institutions completed a credential within three years.

While some research suggests that just over half of students complete a certificate or college degree within six years, it’s difficult to get a true picture of national graduation rate data. Because of a federal ban on collecting comprehensive student-level data and a decades-old graduation rate definition established by Congress, the Department of Education collects data on graduation rates only for first-time, full-time students. The growing ranks of part-time students and transfer students are therefore not included in the national graduation rates that colleges and universities report, nor are students who transfer from a two-year institution to a four-year college to complete their degrees.

The Department of Education’s graduation rate definition measures the share of those first-time, full-time students who graduate within 150 percent of the expected time to completion—averaging nearly 60 percent within six years for students enrolled in four-year colleges, and nearly one-third within three years for students enrolled at two-year institutions. Those data reveal that graduation rates also vary significantly across institutions, suggesting academic supports for students or educational quality are not the same at all schools. Given how important college completion is to ultimate post-college success—adults with degrees have lower rates of unemployment and higher wages than those with only a high school diploma, and borrowers who drop out before earning a degree are three times more likely to default on their loans—accurate measures of graduation are especially critical for students to understand.

Credit: Clare McCann

U.S. College Population as 1,000 Students

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