Everybody has an idea of what university is like. Whether you just graduated, left many years ago, or opted to go straight into the workforce, higher education often evokes images of packed lecture theatres, libraries filled with studious young people, and rowdy dorm rooms.

But as this graphic from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows, modern US higher education doesn’t necessarily conform to those stereotypes.

America as 100 college students
Image: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Using data from the US Department of Education, it depicts the total student body as just 100 students. You can explore the chart yourself, but these are some of the most interesting takeaways.


The student population is not as young as you might expect. Just over half fall into the stereotypical undergraduate age bracket. Over a quarter are aged between 22 and 29, while nearly one in 10 are over the age of 40.

Learning environment

Online learning has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years. According to ICEF Monitor, more students signed up for MOOCs (massive open online courses) last year than in the previous three combined. As this chart from Class Central shows, the number of courses available is also increasing rapidly.

Cumulative number of MOOCs offered, from 2012-2016
Cumulative number of MOOCs offered, from 2012-2016
Image: Class Central

This is a trend reflected in the United States, where a quarter of students are now learning online to some extent – 13 of our imaginary 100 students are learning purely online.


Nearly two in three college students are in some form of employment. Indeed, over a quarter are working full time. The Washington Post suggests this has called for an increased flexibility in class hours, and is in part responsible for the surge in online and distance learning classes.

Dependents and housing

Visions of hedonistic college students living in chaotic dorms are also dispelled by the chart: nearly one in three have children, while less than half live in the dorms depicted in Hollywood college movies. Indeed, one in 10 live with a parent or guardian.

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