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Another academic year starts at 4,634 institutions of higher education in the U.S., including 1,705 public, 1,713 private non-profit and 1,216 private for-profit institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, almost 19 million students in the U.S. enrolled in college this past spring. More than 7 million of them were in four-year public institutions, and more than 6 million in two-year public community colleges. Just less than 4 million students enrolled in four-year private non-profit colleges and universities. Interestingly, enrollment at public and private non-profit schools was up 1-2 percent, but enrollment at for-profit schools of all types was down about 3-5 percent.

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The Chronicle of Higher Education published its annual report this month and found that business related majors continued as the most popular degree conferred by undergraduates, followed by majors in health professions. In third place were degrees in the liberal arts and the sciences.

College campuses, according to The Chronicle, are more diverse than ever before. In 2012, 55 percent of American college students across all types of institutions were white, 14 percent were Hispanic, 13 percent were black, and almost 6 percent were Asian. Moreover, 62 percent of associate degrees conferred in 2012 were to women, who also received the majority of bachelor's degrees (57 percent), master's degrees (60 percent), and doctoral degrees (51 percent).

According to The Chronicle, a majority of last year's freshman class within four-year colleges had at least one parent with a college degree. Nineteen percent of them were first generation college students.

Fifty-seven percent of college students borrowed money to attend college in 2012, according to The Chronicle. This is up from 52 percent in 2001. The average debt amount of graduates from four-year colleges per graduate was just over $14,000. The average debt amount of graduates from four-year colleges per borrower was about $25,000. Both of these numbers are up somewhat from 2001.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Asian students have the highest six-year graduation rates at four-year public institutions (69% percent), compared with white students (61 percent), Hispanic students (50 percent) and black students (40 percent).

Fewer than one out of three community college students complete their associate degrees or certificates within three years. But the community college data are very misleading. Most of these students attend college on a part-time basis, and many of them transfer to other colleges, including four-year colleges. Thus, these students are not college drop-outs, but used the community college system as it was meant to be used — as a stepping stone to other education and employment opportunities.

The cost of a college education continues to be an issue for many families. The Chronicle reports that "The amount students paid to attend public four-year colleges doubled from 1987 to 2012, while the state contribution per student fell by nearly a third." This is disturbing when one considers the economic advantages for students and, ultimately, for our nation, related to educational attainment and income.

Indeed, a solid majority of students (86 percent) reported that "to be able to get a better job" was their primary reason for attending college.

The data seem to support their reasoning.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau Data report in 2011, people with associate degrees earned on average 27 percent more over a 40-year working life of a high school graduate. Income increased by 65 percent with a bachelor's degree, 96 percent with a master's degree, 143 percent with a doctoral degree and 192 percent with a professional degree, according to the report. These earning disparities have been increasing over time, too. The report found that "the earnings advantage of having a college degree over just a high-school diploma was more than two and a half times greater in 2013 than it was in 1965."

As my dad always told us: "Stay in school."

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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