What college was like the year you were born

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September 12, 2020
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What college was like the year you were born

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it a strange time to start a semester at college. While the first few weeks of university typically involve settling into your dorm, getting to know your professors, learning the campus layout, and (of course) lots of socializing, everything has changed this year. Some colleges have told students to stay home and attend all their classes online, while others have opted to bring back a portion of students and mandate social distancing protocols and hybrid learning. No matter which school students attend this fall, they’re bound to have a radically different experience than in previous years.

The situation has prompted students to take their academic futures into their own hands. Case in point: College “collab houses.” Taylor Lorenz of The New York Times reports that groups of college students have decided to form micro-communities where they can live and work together in another location. For some Michigan students, that’s meant moving to Brooklyn for big-city living. And for a group from Yale, that’s turned into a semester of sun and surf in Barbados—all an attempt to recapture some of the traditional college experience during an unprecedented year.

So how does college in 2020 compare to when you were born? Stacker took a look at what college was like every year over the last century. To provide statistical context about college, Stacker consulted multiple sources. For data from 1946 to 1990, Stacker consulted the National Center for Education Statistics’s 120 Years of American Education report, released in 1993. For data from 1991 to 2020, Stacker consulted a separate table from the National Center for Education Statistics, released in 2019. As a result of using two separate reports, there is a discrepancy in data-collection methodology that causes a noticeable decrease in college enrollment between 1990 and 1991. Data from 2019 and 2020 are also projections. Stacker supplemented these statistics with information from higher education organizations, university timelines, news articles, and other authoritative sources to discover major moments in higher education since 1921.

Get ready for some serious nostalgia: Here’s what college was like every year from 1921 to 2020.

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University of Pennsylvania // Wikimedia Commons

1921: First Black women in US earn doctorates

College students began to see that success in higher education wasn’t solely limited to white men in the early 1920s. Eva B. Dykes, Sadie T. Mossell Alexander (pictured), and Georgiana R. Simpson became the first African American women to earn doctorates in the U.S. in 1921, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

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Washington & Jefferson College // Wikimedia Commons

1922: Greek life influences socializing on campus

Greek life became the driving force behind socializing among college students in the 1920s, writes Paula Fass in “The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s,” via HuffPost. Fraternities and sororities would help male and female college students connect through formal dances and dinners.

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Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest // Wikimedia Commons

1923: Jewish campus organization gets its start

Hillel was founded in 1923 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Jewish student organization can now be found at more than 550 universities and colleges.

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1924: Junior colleges gain more recognition

While junior colleges had been around since the early 20th century, they began to earn more recognition during the mid-1920s when leaders of the American Association of Junior Colleges implemented new strategies for these institutions, according to Richard L. Drury of Inquiry. These schools are now known as community colleges.

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1925: New York founds first home economics college

The New York State College of Home Economics was founded in 1925. According to Cornell University, it was the country’s first state-chartered college to tackle this subject area, which was primarily geared toward women.

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1926: Association of American Universities bans foreign institutions

The leadership team of the Association of American Universities agreed to restrict membership solely to universities in the U.S. in 1926, according to Philip Altbach and Liz Reisberg of Inside Higher Ed. The move by the prestigious organization was part of a larger trend of academic isolationism.

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1927: John D. Rockefeller envisions student loan system

In 1927, John D. Rockefeller proposed a student loan program for students struggling to meet the rising cost of tuition, reports Lily Rothman of Time. The system he envisioned would have included the possibility of no-interest loans, with the first payment due a decade after graduation.

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1928: Universities devote more money to football

College athletics increased in importance throughout the early 20th century. Columbia University finished building Baker Field in 1928, prompting other universities to invest more money in their football programs, per a report from the Brookings Institution.

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1929: Prohibition fails to stop on-campus drinking

The advent of Prohibition in 1920 didn’t stop college students from drinking on campus throughout the following decade, writes Michael Stephen Hevel in his thesis, “Betwixt Brewings: A History of College Students and Alcohol.” A 1929 article published in the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s student newspaper noted that anyone would notice “a strong presence of alcohol” if they walked by the campus fraternities.

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J.P. Troy // Wikimedia Commons

1930: Great Depression hurts private college endowments

The Great Depression made a serious impact on the financial state of many private colleges and universities. Throughout the 1930s, private colleges saw their endowments decrease by more than 26% and alumni gifts shrivel up by at least 70%, according to Ellen Schrecker of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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1931: Great Depression leaves students strapped for cash

The Great Depression dealt a major financial blow to just about everyone in the country—including college students. Joe Gruzalski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at newspaper archives from the era and found that many students tried to sell anything they could spare, from needles and shoelaces to refrigerators, to make money in 1931.

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1932: Universities slash professor salaries

Amid the financial losses caused by the Great Depression, universities looked to professor pay as an area ripe for cost cutting in the 1930s. Around 84% of colleges cut professor salaries during this decade, sometimes by more than 40%, per Ellen Schrecker of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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1933: Scholars flee fascist Europe to US

The New School created its University in Exile program in 1933, offering asylum to scholars who needed to flee fascist Europe. Participants would go on to “transform American scholarship” and educate students who would go on to win Nobel Prizes and Oscars, according to Lucie Levine of 6sqft.

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National Photo Company // Library of Congress

1934: Professor workloads increase amid a rise in enrollment

Enrollment began to climb at public colleges in 1934. As a result, professor workloads increased, and perks (such as travel and research grants) shrank or went away entirely, per Ellen Schrecker of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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1935: National Youth Administration provides work-study program

The National Youth Administration was founded through the Works Progress Administration in 1935. It ran a Student Aid Program to provide work-study opportunities for college students, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

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1936: Universities struggle to keep up with influx of women

Universities experienced an influx of female students during the Great Depression. As a result, Penn State experienced a housing shortage for women in 1936. Its dorms for women did not even have enough space for half of its female students that year.

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Arthur Rothstein // Library of Congress

1937: 15% of young adults attend college

While colleges were seeing an uptick in attendance in the mid-1930s, the proportion of Americans who pursued higher education was still relatively small compared with current rates. In 1937, just 15% of people age 18 to 20 enrolled in university, and most of them were wealthy, per James B. Hunt Jr. of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

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1938: College administrators push for standardized tests

A 13-year research project on high school and college students known as The Pennsylvania Study led to an increased emphasis of standardized tests among college administrators when it concluded in 1938. The findings ultimately reformed college applications and the admissions process, according to Craig Kridel of the University of South Carolina, via Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Marion Post Wolcott // Library of Congress

1939: Great Depression propels enrollment in junior college

Enrollment in junior colleges skyrocketed during the Great Depression. In just a decade (1929–39), enrollment at these schools saw a nearly threefold increase to 150,000 students, according to a report from Richard L. Drury of Inquiry.

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1940: Professors urge universities to protect academic freedom

The American Association of University Professors issued a restatement of its principles on academic freedom in 1940. The group called for professors to have full freedom to research and publish their findings, discuss their subject matter in the classroom, and speak without censorship.

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1941: Colleges take part in World War II efforts

Many colleges and universities lost huge numbers of male students in 1941 when the country entered World War II. Some institutions helped with the war effort by giving physical campus space and instruction time to the military, per Tyler Kingkade of HuffPost.

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1942: College students join major civil rights organization

The Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization, was founded in Chicago in 1942. College students played pivotal roles within the organization and worked to test civil rights laws in the subsequent decades.

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Courtesy of the Bates College Historic Photographs Collection // Wikimedia Commons

1943: Navy teams up with colleges

The new V-12 Navy College Program began enrolling tens of thousands of participants in universities across the U.S. in 1943. The program was an effort to add more commissioned officers to the Navy during World War II.

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1944: Veterans get tuition through G.I. Bill

Congress and President Roosevelt enacted the G.I. Bill in 1944. It provided military veterans with a slew of new benefits, including money to cover college tuition and help with the cost of living while pursuing an education.

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1945: Harvard Medical School admits women

Harvard Medical School opened its doors to female students for the first time in history in 1945. The breakthrough in women’s education came almost a century after a woman first applied to the medical school, according to Colleen Walsh of The Harvard Gazette.

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Marion Post Wolcott // Library of Congress

1946: Junior colleges become community colleges

- Total enrollment: 2.1 million

Jesse R. Bogue took on the role of executive secretary at the American Association of Junior Colleges in 1946 and made it his mission to rebrand these institutions as “community colleges.” He later wrote “The Community College,” which helped popularize the new name, per Richard L. Drury of Inquiry.

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1947: Veterans enroll in college en masse

- Total enrollment: 2.3 million (71.0% male; 29.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.2 million (49.3% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.2 million (50.7% of total)

Almost half of college admissions went to World War II veterans in 1947. The influx of former military members at colleges and universities was a result of the new education benefits from the G.I. Bill, according to History.com.

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1948: Court orders Oklahoma law school to admit Black student

- Total enrollment: 2.4 million (71.1% male; 28.9% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.2 million (49.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.2 million (50.7% of total)

In its 1948 decision in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the all-white University of Oklahoma School of Law must admit a Black student because the state had no other law school for Blacks. The ruling was one step forward for integration in higher education.

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1949: Organization sets criteria for accrediting universities

- Total enrollment: 2.4 million (70.4% male; 29.6% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.2 million (49.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.2 million (50.6% of total)

The National Commission on Accreditation was founded in 1949. It was the first national body to establish criteria and acknowledge accrediting agencies for institutes of higher education.

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1950: Professors are subject to loyalty oaths against communism

- Total enrollment: 2.3 million (68.4% male; 31.6% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.1 million (50.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.1 million (50.1% of total)

During the McCarthy years, professors at many universities across the country were required to take “loyalty oaths” swearing allegiance to the country and democracy in the early 1950s. The oaths were an effort to rid faculties of Communist Party members, according to Sarah Lawrence College.

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1951: For-profit colleges exploit G.I. Bill

- Total enrollment: 2.1 million (66.2% male; 33.8% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.0 million (49.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.1 million (50.6% of total)

A 1951 investigation by the Government Accounting Office found evidence of widespread malfeasance among for-profit institutions of higher education that accepted funding for students through the G.I. Bill. The report noted that 65% of participating schools had questionable practices such as “overstating costs, inflating enrollment figures, and recruiting students who had little chance of graduating,” per William Beaver of the American Association of University Professors.

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1952: NCAA regulates TV coverage of college football

- Total enrollment: 2.1 million (64.7% male; 35.3% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.1 million (51.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.0 million (48.4% of total)

The National Collegiate Athletic Association implemented regulations on television broadcasts of college football games in 1952. The move was an effort to maintain attendance of the live events at stadiums.

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1953: President Eisenhower praises Dartmouth’s natural beauty

- Total enrollment: 2.2 million (63.8% male; 36.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.2 million (53.2% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.0 million (46.8% of total)

On a visit to Dartmouth in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, “This is what a college should look like.” The famous statement reflected how Americans felt about the ideal college experience at the time—a sentiment that still resonates at bucolic campuses across the country today.

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1954: Ivy League becomes official

- Total enrollment: 2.4 million (63.9% male; 36.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.4 million (55.3% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.1 million (44.7% of total)

The Ivy League became official when eight university presidents created an athletic agreement in 1954. Participating universities included Cornell, Brown, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania.

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1955: Student athlete enters the lexicon

- Total enrollment: 2.7 million (65.3% male; 34.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.5 million (55.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.2 million (44.4% of total)

The term “student athlete” entered the mainstream lexicon in 1955 after Ray Dennison, a football player at Fort Lewis A&M, suffered a fatal head injury at the beginning of a game against Trinidad Junior College, according to The Daily Tar Heel. His wife was denied workers’ compensation benefits because Dennison was not considered an employee but rather a “student athlete.” The NCAA has since used the term to make a distinction between players and employees.

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1956: Indiana University establishes first coed dorm

- Total enrollment: 2.9 million (65.5% male; 34.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 1.7 million (56.8% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.3 million (43.2% of total)

Indiana University allowed male and female students to reside together at Teter Quadrangle in 1956. The residence hall is believed to be the first coed college dorm in the country, per Rogers Worthington of the Chicago Tribune.

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1957: Journal publishes first study on sexual assault at college

- Total enrollment: 3.3 million (65.3% male; 34.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 2.0 million (59.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.4 million (40.6% of total)

The American Sociological Review published one of the first studies focused on sexual assault on college campuses in February 1957. “Male Sex Aggression on University Campus” looked at how “men used secrecy and stigma to pressure and exploit” female students, according to Anya Kamenetz of NPR.

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1958: Eisenhower signs National Defense Education Act

President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted the National Defense Education Act in 1958. It would provide federal assistance to engineering students and foreign-language scholars, as well as new loans for growing numbers of people pursuing higher education.

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FPG // Getty Images

1959: ACT competes with the SAT

- Total enrollment: 3.6 million (64.1% male; 35.9% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 2.2 million (59.9% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.5 million (40.1% of total)

Prospective college students had their choice of standardized tests to use on their applications in 1995, when the ACT test was first offered. It was created as a competitor to the SAT.

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Abbie Rowe // U.S. National Archives

1960: Kennedy proposes Peace Corps at University of Michigan

While campaigning for president at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1960, John F. Kennedy made a speech that would be considered the founding moment of the Peace Corps. He encouraged college students to get involved in public service. The Peace Corps now works closely with universities to recruit volunteers to serve while pursuing higher education.

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JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado // Getty Images

1961: Anti-communist loyalty oaths disappear

- Total enrollment: 4.1 million (62.4% male; 37.6% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 2.6 million (61.8% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.6 million (38.2% of total)

The loyalty oaths professors were required to take during the McCarthy years began to abate during the 1960s, notes Ellen Schrecker of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This helped usher in a new era of academic freedom on college campuses.

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Jerry Huff/UPI // Library of Congress

1962: Riot breaks out at Ole Miss over integration

A riot broke out at the University of Mississippi in 1962 when James Meredith, an African American college student, tried to act upon a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in his favor affirming his right to enroll at the all-white university. A group of at least 2,000 students tried to block his entrance. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy deployed 31,000 federal troops to the school to ensure Meredith could enter, per History.com.

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1963: College students form first Muslim association

- Total enrollment: 4.8 million (62.0% male; 38.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 3.1 million (64.5% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.7 million (35.5% of total)

College students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign formed the Muslim Students’ Association of the U.S. and Canada in 1963. Composed mostly of international students, it was the first major Muslim student association in the country, according to Geneive Abdo in “Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11.”

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1964: Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination at public universities

- Total enrollment: 5.3 million (61.5% male; 38.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 3.5 million (65.7% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 1.8 million (34.3% of total)

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It prohibited public colleges and universities from discriminating based on color, race, sex, religion, or national origin.

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1965: President Johnson signs Higher Education Act

- Total enrollment: 5.9 million (61.3% male; 38.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 4.0 million (67.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.0 million (33.0% of total)

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Higher Education Act of 1965 in November of that year. It would establish federally funded scholarships and low-interest loans for college students, new community colleges, subsidies for academic libraries, and other forms of assistance for institutes of higher education.

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1966: First college shooting occurs in Texas

- Total enrollment: 6.4 million (60.3% male; 39.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 4.3 million (68.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.0 million (31.9% of total)

Ex-Marine Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas, climbed into the campus clock tower and fired at passersby on Aug. 1, 1966. He killed more than a dozen people and injured 31 others, according to the Associated Press. The event is considered the first college shooting.

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1967: Gay student group gets recognition for first time

- Total enrollment: 6.9 million (59.8% male; 40.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 4.8 million (69.7% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.1 million (30.3% of total)

Students at Columbia University founded the Student Homophile League in 1967. The organization is considered the first university-recognized gay student group in the country.

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1968: Student activists take over Columbia University buildings

- Total enrollment: 7.5 million (59.6% male; 40.4% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 5.4 million (72.3% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.1 million (27.7% of total)

Civil unrest led to the takeover of five buildings on the Columbia University campus by student activists in May 1968. Some 700 people were arrested, and the events are considered the spark for “a culture of student unrest,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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1969: Prestigious universities go coed

- Total enrollment: 8.0 million (59.3% male; 40.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 5.9 million (73.7% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.1 million (26.3% of total)

The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a period when a number of prestigious universities in the U.S. began admitting women. Princeton University, Trinity College, and Yale University admitted female students in 1969, followed by Colgate University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Virginia in 1970, according to CollegeXpress.

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1970: National Guardsmen fatally shoot four Kent State students

- Total enrollment: 8.6 million (58.8% male; 41.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 6.4 million (74.9% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.2 million (25.1% of total)

Four Kent State students lost their lives and nine others were injured after National Guardsmen fired on them during a Vietnam War protest in May 1970. Less than two weeks later, police killed two protesting students at Jackson State University, per The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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1971: Prospective students compete for new scholarship

- Total enrollment: 8.9 million (58.2% male; 41.8% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 6.8 million (76.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.1 million (24.0% of total)

Prospective college students got a new opportunity to pay for tuition in 1971 when the PSAT joined forces with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The results of the first test put 15,000 high school seniors in the running for 3,000 four-year scholarships, each worth up to $1,500 a year, per The New York Times.

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Fred D. Gorton/New York Times Co. // Getty Images

1972: Title IX opens new opportunities to women

- Total enrollment: 9.2 million (56.9% male; 43.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 7.1 million (76.7% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.1 million (23.3% of total)

Colleges that receive federal funding were no longer allowed to prohibit students from participating in education programs, sports, and other activities on the basis of sex after Title IX of the Education Amendments became law in 1972. The legislation brought greater gender equality to university campuses across the country.

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1973: Predecessor to University of Phoenix is created

- Total enrollment: 9.6 million (55.9% male; 44.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 7.4 million (77.3% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.2 million (22.7% of total)

John Sperling created an adult education program for nontraditional students in 1973, per Daniel L. Bennett, Adam R. Lucchesi, and Richard K. Vedder of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity. That program would help lead Sperling eventually found the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college that would eventually be investigated for abusive student recruitment practices.

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1974: Congress grants greater privacy to college students

- Total enrollment: 10.2 million (55.0% male; 45.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 8.0 million (78.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.2 million (21.9% of total)

College students got the right to privacy over certain academic records after Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in 1974. It requires that universities obtain written permission from students before releasing grades, transcripts, class schedules, and other documents to their parents under many circumstances.

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1975: Government probes abuse at for-profit colleges

- Total enrollment: 11.2 million (55.0% male; 45.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 8.8 million (79.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.4 million (21.0% of total)

The U.S. Office of Education teamed up with the American Institutes for Research to investigate student consumer abuse at for-profit colleges and universities in 1975. It found that there were 14 types of abuse at these institutions that ultimately left students at a disadvantage, and that almost none of these schools were “totally free of some potential for abuse,” per Daniel L. Bennett, Adam R. Lucchesi, and Richard K. Vedder of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity.

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1976: Congress offers more funding for medical students

- Total enrollment: 11.0 million (52.8% male; 47.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 8.7 million (78.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.4 million (21.4% of total)

Congress passed the Health Professions Educational Assistance Act in 1976. The law boosted the availability of scholarships and grants to university students pursuing education in health and medicine, according to Mary A. Fruen, author of “Medical Education and Societal Needs: A Planning Report for the Health Professions.”

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1977: Federal work-study program covers majority of tuition

- Total enrollment: 11.3 million (51.3% male; 48.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 8.8 million (78.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.4 million (21.6% of total)

On average, the federal work-study program covered 90% of public university tuition and fees in the mid-1970s, per Judith Scott-Clayton of the Brookings Institution. Five decades later, that same program would only pay for 16% of tuition and fees at public institutions.

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1978: Supreme Court upholds affirmative action in college admissions

- Total enrollment: 11.3 million (50.1% male; 49.9% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 8.8 million (78.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.5 million (22.0% of total)

In 1978’s U. of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision that allowed race to be considered during college admissions, effectively permitting affirmative action for minorities. However, it banned the use of racial quotas in filling seats, per The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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1979: Federal government creates Department of Education

- Total enrollment: 11.6 million (49.1% male; 50.9% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.0 million (78.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.5 million (21.9% of total)

The U.S. Department of Education was founded under President Jimmy Carter in 1979. It would become responsible for enforcing civil rights statutes that protect college students on the basis of criteria like sex, disability, age, and national origin, as well as establishing financial aid policies.

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1980: For-profit colleges gain popularity

- Total enrollment: 12.1 million (48.6% male; 51.4% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.5 million (78.2% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.6 million (21.8% of total)

The 1980s would begin to see a major rise in enrollment at for-profit colleges. Throughout the decade, for-profit institutions were responsible for as much as 50% of the increase in people attending college, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

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1981: President Reagan supports historically Black colleges

- Total enrollment: 12.4 million (48.3% male; 51.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.6 million (78.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.7 million (22.0% of total)

President Ronald Reagan established the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities through an executive order in 1981. It would encourage the federal government to provide support for HBCUs, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

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1982: Women earn more bachelor’s degrees than men

- Total enrollment: 12.4 million (48.5% male; 51.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.7 million (78.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.7 million (22.0% of total)

Data from the Department of Education shows that women were awarded more bachelor’s degrees than their male counterparts for the first time ever in 1982. The achievement came four years after women first earned more associate’s degrees than men in 1978.

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1983: National commission urges colleges to raise standards

- Total enrollment: 12.5 million (48.3% male; 51.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.7 million (77.7% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.8 million (22.3% of total)

The U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published its landmark report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” in 1983. The report warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” among the nation’s schools and urged universities to raise their admissions standards to bolster fields like math, science, and foreign languages, per Edward B. Fiske of The New York Times.

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1984: Discriminatory private college stops accepting financial aid

- Total enrollment: 12.2 million (47.9% male; 52.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.5 million (77.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.8 million (22.6% of total)

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in 1984 that said Grove City College must follow anti-discrimination laws, even though it’s a private institution, because its students get financial aid from the federal government. Rather than changing its practices, the college decided to opt out of federal financial aid programs, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

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1985: Federal official endorses plan to slash student aid

- Total enrollment: 12.2 million (47.5% male; 52.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.5 million (77.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.8 million (22.6% of total)

In February 1985, William J. Bennett, leader of the National Endowment for the Humanities, threw his weight behind a proposal to cut federal dollars for student aid. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, he said that college students may need to consider “a stereo divestiture, an automobile divestiture, or a three-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture.”

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1986: Women earn more master’s degrees than men

- Total enrollment: 12.5 million (47.1% male; 52.9% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.7 million (77.7% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.8 million (22.3% of total)

During the 1986–87 academic year, women earned more master’s degrees than men for the first time in U.S. history. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that women were awarded 50.4% of all master’s degrees that year.

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1987: College campuses go dry

- Total enrollment: 12.8 million (46.5% male; 53.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.0 million (78.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.8 million (21.9% of total)

The drinking age was set to 21 in all 50 states by 1987. Since that made it illegal for most freshmen, sophomores, and even some juniors to drink, many college campuses decided to ban alcohol entirely, according to Gabbi Shaw of Insider.

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1988: Official warns of loan abuse at for-profit colleges

- Total enrollment: 13.1 million (46.0% male; 54.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.2 million (77.8% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.9 million (22.2% of total)

Education Secretary William Bennett asked Congress to address the high rate of student loan default among people who attended for-profit universities in 1988. At that time, student loan default rates were higher than 50% at some of the country’s 6,500 for-profit colleges and universities. He asked Congress to ban schools with default rates higher than 20% from the federal student loan program, per William Beaver of the American Association of University Professors.

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1989: US protects Chinese students after Tiananmen Square Massacre

- Total enrollment: 13.5 million (45.7% male; 54.3% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.6 million (78.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.0 million (21.9% of total)

The Chinese army killed some 10,000 people during student-led pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, per the BBC. Shortly after, Congress and President George H.W. Bush enacted new protections for Chinese students at U.S. universities at the time of the incident, allowing them to stay in the country and avoid the risk of labor camps, imprisonment, and executions back home, according to Michael Zennie of Time.

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1990: College students with disabilities receive protection from discrimination

- Total enrollment: 13.7 million (45.5% male; 54.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.7 million (78.3% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.0 million (21.7% of total)

Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The law prohibited universities from discriminating against students on the basis of disability.

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1991: Graduate student kills five people on campus

- Total enrollment: 12.4 million (44.8% male; 55.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.1 million (81.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.3 million (18.4% of total)

A graduate student from China opened fire at the University of Iowa in November 1991 after his doctoral dissertation failed to win an award, per Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times. The shooting spree, which occurred before mass shootings were common, left five people dead, according to Gage Miskimen of The Daily Iowan.

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1992: Government bans bonuses for recruiters at for-profit colleges

- Total enrollment: 12.5 million (44.5% male; 55.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.2 million (81.5% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.3 million (18.5% of total)

In an effort to regulate incentives for employees at for-profit colleges to recruit more students, the federal government enacted the Higher Education Amendments of 1992. The legislation banned for-profit universities from giving their staff any commissions or bonuses tied to student enrollment or financial aid, per David Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz, authors of “For-Profit Colleges.”

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1993: Law stops colleges from forcing professors to retire

- Total enrollment: 12.3 million (44.5% male; 55.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.0 million (81.2% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.3 million (18.8% of total)

After a temporary exemption to the Age Discrimination in Employment Amendments of 1986 expired in 1993, college and universities were no longer allowed to force professors to retire at the age of 70. The law only applied to professors “serving under a contract of unlimited tenure,” per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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1994: Universities disclose statistics on gender in sports

- Total enrollment: 12.3 million (44.2% male; 55.8% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.9 million (81.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.3 million (18.9% of total)

Congress passed the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act in 1994 in an effort to bring greater gender equality to college sports programs. The law requires that coed colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs and offer intercollegiate sports report information on their men’s and women’s teams’ roster sizes, recruiting budgets, scholarships, coaches’ salaries, and more.

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1995: Thomas Kane promotes need-based financial aid

- Total enrollment: 12.2 million (44.2% male; 55.8% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.9 million (81.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.3 million (19.0% of total)

“Rising Public College Tuition and College Entry: How Well Do Public Subsidies Promote Access to College?” by economist Thomas Kane was published in July 1995. The paper argued that the rising cost of tuition caused disparity in university enrollment rates between students from rich and poor families, and that need-based financial aid could help narrow the gap.

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1996: Court rules against race-based affirmative action in admissions

- Total enrollment: 12.3 million (44.0% male; 56.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 9.9 million (80.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.4 million (19.4% of total)

In 1996, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Hopwood v. Texas that universities could not use racial preferences as part of admissions criteria, according to The Center for Individual Rights. It was considered a blow to affirmative action policies.

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1997: United Nations recommends standards for universities

- Total enrollment: 12.5 million (43.9% male; 56.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.0 million (80.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.4 million (19.6% of total)

In 1997, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization put forth formal recommendations of standards that colleges and universities around the world should establish for their teaching faculties. The standards spotlighted the importance of autonomy for institutes of higher education and academic freedom.

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1998: Professors get age-based retirement incentives

- Total enrollment: 12.4 million (43.8% male; 56.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.0 million (80.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.5 million (20.0% of total)

Congress passed the Higher Education Amendments of 1998. The law granted colleges and universities permission to provide special retirement incentives for tenured professors on the basis of age. It replaced an earlier rule that allowed institutions of higher education to force tenured faculty members to retire at a certain age.

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1999: Revenues at for-profit colleges grow

- Total enrollment: 12.7 million (43.8% male; 56.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.2 million (79.9% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.6 million (20.1% of total)

The year 1999 began a period of growth at for-profit institutions of higher education. Schools in this sector would see their revenue grow by 40% and enrollments expand by 30% by 2004, per William Beaver of the American Association of University Professors.

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2000: Market downturn impacts college endowments

- Total enrollment: 13.2 million (43.9% male; 56.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 10.5 million (80.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.6 million (19.9% of total)

A 13-year bull market that began in 1987 boosted university endowments by millions (and sometimes billions) of dollars, per The Chronicle of Higher Education. The dot-com bubble burst in 2000, ending the period of substantial growth.

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2001: 9/11 sparks interest in Middle Eastern studies

- Total enrollment: 13.7 million (43.8% male; 56.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 11.0 million (80.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.7 million (19.9% of total)

Interest in Middle Eastern studies at colleges and universities increased after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Colleges also saw a rise in people wishing to study Arabic as a second language, according to Jason Lane, a professor at the University of Albany.

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2002: Education department weakens ban on recruitment bonuses

- Total enrollment: 14.3 million (43.4% male; 56.6% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 11.4 million (80.2% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 2.8 million (19.8% of total)

The Department of Education weakened earlier regulations on incentive compensation for employees at for-profit colleges in 2002. It would now allow schools to adjust recruiter wages twice annually, as long as the salary changes were not solely the result of student recruitment or financial aid awards, according to David Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz, authors of “For-Profit Colleges.”

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2003: Supreme Court establishes new criteria for affirmative action

- Total enrollment: 14.5 million (43.0% male; 57.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 11.5 million (79.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.0 million (20.4% of total)

The Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Gratz v. Bollinger established stricter affirmative action standards for undergraduate admissions, per The Chronicle of Higher Education. While the decision still allowed race to be a factor in admissions, affirmative action criteria must be more narrowly tailored to comply with the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

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2004: College students embrace social media

- Total enrollment: 14.8 million (42.9% male; 57.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 11.7 million (78.8% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.1 million (21.2% of total)

Mark Zuckerberg and his classmates founded Facebook in 2004. Initially started as a way to connect students at Harvard University, it was quickly expanded to students at other universities, providing a new way for people on campus to interact.

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2005: Hurricanes batter college campuses

- Total enrollment: 15.0 million (42.8% male; 57.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 11.7 million (78.2% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.3 million (21.8% of total)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused $1.4 billion worth of destruction at 27 universities and colleges in the Southern U.S. in 2005, per Katherine Mangan of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Some schools were forced to close for the semester, displacing around 100,000 students, according to Elizabeth F. Farrell and Eric Hoover of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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2006: Women earn more doctorates than men

- Total enrollment: 15.2 million (42.9% male; 57.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 11.8 million (78.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.3 million (22.0% of total)

Female students earned more doctorate degrees than men for the first time in U.S. history in the 2005–06 academic year. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that 50.1% of all doctorate degrees earned that year went to women. Female students have continued to earn more doctorates than their male counterparts every year since.

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2007: 32 people killed in shooting at Virginia Tech

- Total enrollment: 15.6 million (43.1% male; 56.9% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 12.1 million (77.8% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.5 million (22.2% of total)

A senior at Virginia Tech opened fire at the university on April 16, 2007, killing 32 students and faculty. The massacre is considered one of the country’s deadliest mass shootings, per CNN.

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2008: First massive open online course draws thousands

- Total enrollment: 16.3 million (43.2% male; 56.8% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 12.6 million (77.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.8 million (23.0% of total)

Around 2,200 students attended the first massive open online course (MOOC) in September 2008, per The Chronicle of Higher Education. Some 25 students paid tuition for the experience, showing universities that online learning could eventually be a financially sustainable endeavor.

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2009: Community colleges hold classes 24 hours a day

- Total enrollment: 17.5 million (43.3% male; 56.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.4 million (76.7% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 4.1 million (23.3% of total)

Some community colleges began scheduling classes almost 24 hours every day in 2009, according to a New York Times article referenced in “For-Profit Colleges.” The round-the-clock offering was a response to a spike in enrollment during the economic recession.

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2010: Federal government triples Pell Grant spending

- Total enrollment: 18.1 million (43.3% male; 56.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.7 million (75.8% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 4.4 million (24.2% of total)

The federal government spent $35 billion on the Pell Grant program in the 2010–11 academic year. That number was more than triple what the government spent on the higher education grant program in 2000–01, according to David Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz, authors of “For-Profit Colleges.”

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2011: Obama administration tackles sexual harassment on campus

- Total enrollment: 18.1 million (43.3% male; 56.7% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.7 million (75.8% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 4.4 million (24.2% of total)

The Obama administration released new guidance to universities in an effort to end sexual violence and harassment on campuses in 2011. The “Dear Colleague Letter” stated that sexual harassment against students impeded their right to a discrimination-free education. The Trump administration would withdraw the guidance six years later.

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2012: College students shoulder $1 trillion in debt

- Total enrollment: 17.7 million (43.5% male; 56.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.5 million (76.0% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 4.3 million (24.0% of total)

College students shouldered huge amounts of debt from rising tuition throughout the 2000s. As a result, the total outstanding balance on all student loans in the U.S. climbed to a record $1 trillion in 2012, according to Jillian Berman of MarketWatch.

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2013: Student loan interest rates double

- Total enrollment: 17.5 million (43.8% male; 56.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.3 million (76.4% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 4.1 million (23.6% of total)

Millions of college students saw their student loan interest rates double to 6.8% in June 2013 after Congress failed to pass laws to stop an automatic rate hike, reports Shelby Bremer of Credit.com. The higher rate meant that students could expect to pay “an additional $3,000 on a $23,000 loan paid off over 10 years.”

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2014: Columbia student draws nationwide attention to sexual assault at college

- Total enrollment: 17.3 million (43.9% male; 56.1% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.2 million (76.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 4.0 million (23.4% of total)

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz carried a 50-pound mattress around campus for most of the 2014–15 academic year (including the graduation ceremony) after the institution cleared a student she says sexually assaulted her in 2012. The performance art drew national attention to the issue of sexual violence on college campuses and the role of universities to address such crimes.

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2015: Enrollment plummets at major for-profit college

- Total enrollment: 17.0 million (44.0% male; 56.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.2 million (77.1% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.9 million (22.9% of total)

The University of Phoenix began preparing for a major downsize in 2015 after a sharp decline in enrollment, per Ronald J. Hansen of The Republic. The for-profit college expected enrollment to decline by 70% in 2016 from a peak of almost 477,000 students in 2010 amid government inquiries into its practices, greater regulations, and the rise of more budget-conscious students.

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2016: Texas allows students to carry handguns to campus

- Total enrollment: 16.9 million (44.0% male; 56.0% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.1 million (77.9% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.7 million (22.1% of total)

Texas enacted the “campus carry law” in 2016. The law, which took effect on the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin shooting that killed 14 people and hurt more than 30 others, permits people age 21 and up with concealed handgun licenses to bring their guns with them to public university campuses, per Karen Yuan and Lucy Price of CNN.

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2017: Applying for financial aid gets easier

- Total enrollment: 16.8 million (43.8% male; 56.2% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.1 million (78.2% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.7 million (21.8% of total)

New rules for the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) introduced in 2017 made it easier for college students to apply for tuition assistance from the government. As a result, 14 million people applied by late June of that year, an increase from 13.2 million in the year before, according to Ann Carrns of The New York Times.

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2018: College students embrace elections

- Total enrollment: 16.6 million (43.5% male; 56.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.0 million (78.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.6 million (21.4% of total)

College students got more politically active in the 2010s. From the midterm elections in 2014 to those of 2018, the voting rate among students more than doubled, according to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education.

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2019: Congress extends funding for colleges serving minority students

- Total enrollment: 16.7 million (43.5% male; 56.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.1 million (78.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.6 million (21.4% of total)

Congress passed the FUTURE Act in December 2019. The act permanently extends hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for higher education institutions focused on minority students, including historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, Alaska Native-serving institutions, Native American-serving nontribal institutions, and Native Hawaiian-serving institutions.

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2020: COVID-19 cancels in-person classes

- Total enrollment: 16.7 million (43.5% male; 56.5% female)
--- Total public enrollment: 13.1 million (78.6% of total)
--- Total private enrollment: 3.6 million (21.4% of total)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many colleges to make major changes to the fall 2020 semester. Some have implemented low-density dorms and delayed the start of the academic year, while others have completely scrapped in-person classes entirely, according to Emma Whitford of Inside Higher Ed.

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