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As the recession took hold of the U.S. economy in late 2008, Americans did what they often do in bad economic times: went back for more schooling. That's why the last report from the federal government about college and university enrollments showed a sharp increase (of 7.1 percent) in the number of students in postsecondary institutions in fall 2009. The upturn -- and the accompanying tuition dollars -- helped soften the economic downturn's impact for many colleges. 

On Tuesday, the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics reported initial data on the number of students who enrolled the following fall, in 2010. The data show enrollments growing yet again, but at a somewhat slower pace, with about 21.6 million students enrolled in fall 2010, up 2.8 percent from a shade under 21 million in 2009.

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As in 2009, for-profit colleges led the way in student growth in 2010, with their enrollments growing by 8.3 percent, compared to a 2.3 percent increase for public universities and 2.4 percent for private nonprofit colleges.

The 2.43 million students enrolled in for-profit colleges meant that those institutions enrolled 11.2 percent of all students in higher education in 2010, up from 6.7 percent of all enrollments in 2004.

The gender gap among students also narrowed slightly in 2010, with men making up 42.8 percent of all postsecondary enrollees, compared to 42.6 percent in 2009 and 2008. The increase in the number of male students appears to have been driven mostly by a rise in undergraduate enrollment of men, perhaps because men were more likely to lose jobs in the recession than were women.

In addition to the enrollment numbers, the Education Department report included information on student financial aid. As might be expected given the economic downturn, the data show an increase in the proportion of full-time, first-time undergraduates who received financial aid of some type, to 81.6 percent in 2009-10 from 78.6 percent in 2008-9. Among students at four-year institutions, 81.5 percent of those at public institutions, 88.8 percent of those at private nonprofit colleges, and 91.8 percent of students at for-profit colleges received financial aid.

About 53 percent of full-time, first-time undergraduates had student loans in 2009-10, compared to 51 percent in 2008-9.

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