Matt Yglesias recently linked to the above chart on college enrollment as an illustration of the huge size of the American community college student body. His thoughts on that subject are well made and worth reading, but it’d be a missed opportunity to end the discussion there.

Here’s a few other things that jumped out at me:

  • American higher education is overwhelmingly public. A full 77% of American college students are enrolled at public colleges and universities.
  • The for-profit sector is a tiny sliver of higher education enrollment, despite its outsized share of government grant and loan money.
  • Private research universities enroll only 4% of American undergrads, just one fifth as many as public research universities do.
  • Traditional non-profit private universities and colleges enroll only 15% of undergrads, and about a quarter of students in bachelors degree granting programs.
  • Taking private and public institutions together, only 24% of US undergraduates are enrolled at research universities.

Yglesias is right to point out the cultural invisibility of community college students, but our myopia extends far beyond the two-year/four-year split. Americans’ image of undergraduates is based on a higher education model that hasn’t existed in reality in generations, and those distortions have far-reaching effects on public policy and public opinion.

(Note: I haven’t been able to find the source for this chart, so it’s possible that some of its figures may be off. It does seem to reflect Carnegie data, however.)