Core Sectors

Back to Sectors

Higher Education

Education is one of the most important industries in the District, accounting for $3.9 billion of GDP.1 Education accounts for 44,000 jobs in DC, with post-secondary education alone accounting for 27,000 jobs. The influx of graduate and undergraduate students into DC also increases demand for other sectors of the economy, such as real estate. DC has the highest percentage of students to population of any state in the nation, with close to 10% of its adult population composed of students attending one of its not-for-profit, public, and for-profit institutions. The largest universities in DC are George Washington University (26,000 students), Georgetown (18,000 students), and American University (13,000 students).2

Boosted by the attractiveness of the urban location and access to national centers of policymaking, DC universities such as Georgetown, George Washington, Howard, and American have seen steady or increasing application and enrollment rates, compared to a national trend of decline in traditional college enrollment (e.g. the U.S. saw a 2% drop in enrollment in 4-year degree programs in 2015).3 Stakeholders expressed concern that student enrollment caps, which limit enrollment for universities within residential neighborhoods (including American, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities), are preventing growth despite growing demand.

Besides being a major industry in itself, higher education in DC develops much of the future workforce for the entire economy, and research universities are potential major sources of innovation and technology transfer.


Figure 1 Higher Education Institutions in DC


Visit the initiatives page and filter Core Sector by “All” to see initiatives that support this sector. You can also filter Opportunity Area by “Data Analysis” to see additional initiatives related to this sector.   

Major Trends Affecting the Sector and Implications

Growth of community colleges and vocational education programs

Trends: Higher education in the District is dominated by traditional four-year degree-granting institutions. Nationwide, however, 42% of all undergraduates (and 25% of full-time undergraduates) are enrolled in community colleges. Efforts such as America’s College Promise, the Obama Administration’s push to make tuition for two-year community college programs free, have elevated the focus on community colleges and vocational educational as a viable pathway to good jobs for those not pursuing traditional four-year college degrees.4

Implications: Community colleges and other vocational training alternatives to the four-year college degree could increase access to job opportunities for DC residents without post-secondary degrees or certifications. UDC-CC should continue to build relationships with employers and train students for specific job placements in order to create a pipeline to jobs in growing industries.

New forms of credentialing disrupting higher education

Trends: Several innovations in learning models have been reshaping the way that higher education is defined, away from the in-person four-year college model. Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), made available for free by organizations such as DC-based Blackboard, Coursera, or Khan Academy over the Internet, have popularized the concept of online education focused on specific skillsets. Another model of education is “microcredentialing”, or the bestowing of credentials for completing coursework in rapid development of skillsets, largely in the technology sector. Organizations such as General Assembly and the Software Craftsmanship Guild offer three-to-six-month in-person boot camp programs, often focused on coding. Another potentially disruptive model of education is competency-based degree programs that allow students to progress through courses at their own pace, often by incorporating an online digital component. Such programs, already in place in Utah’s Western Governor’s University and the University of Wisconsin, are particularly useful for nontraditional students such as adult learners, veterans, and individuals working while attending school.5

Implications: Growing the education sector and building the talent pipeline in identified opportunity areas need not be restricted to expanding enrollment in traditional four-year college programs. In addition, as DC universities start to incorporate these models of virtual learning, enrollment caps could be revised to take into account the fewer days that students spend on campus.

Universities increasingly de-linked with home cities and states

Trends: Many leading universities, both private and public, have set up satellite campuses outside their home state. Several universities such as University of California at Berkeley, Arizona State University, and New York University have set up satellite programs in the District itself. Meanwhile, universities based in the District, such as George Washington, have started to set up satellite campuses or research facilities in the surrounding region, in part driven by enrollment caps but also cost of space.

Other institutions have established international branch campuses. Since 2006, the number of international branch campuses in the world has increased by 43%.6 Some cities, such as Abu Dhabi and Singapore, have specifically targeted attracting international educational institutions to bolster their domestic talent capabilities.7 DC could serve as a prime target given the significant levels of government spending in engineering on research and development, particularly in STEM fields.

Implications: While the trend thus far has been for U.S. institutions to set up branches abroad, DC’s globally known brand might provide an attractive option for both domestic and international institutions looking to open a branch in or send students to the U.S., particularly those looking to further develop expertise in the computer science or engineering fields.


  1. Data from DC Department of Employment Services and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  2. Data from Carolyn M. Proctor, Washington Business Journal, “Colleges and Universities – Ranked by Metro-area enrollment, most recent” <>.
  3. Data for American University admissions from “AU Receives over 19,300 Applications for Admission.” Alumni American University. 13 April 2016. <>. Data for Georgetown University admissions from Tu, Emily. “Acceptance Rate Remains Consistent At 16.4 Percent”. The Hoya, 1 April 2016. <>. Data for GWU admissions from “Undergraduate Applications to GW Rise More Than 28 Percent.” GW Today. 4 February 2016. <>. Data for Howard University admissions from “Howard University Sees Double-Digit Increase in Applications for Class of 2019.” 9 March 2015. <>.
  4. Smith, Ashley. “Obama Steps Up Push for Free.” Inside Higher Ed. 9 September 2015. <>.
  5. Cooper, Preston. “Mastering the Skills, Not the Clock.” US News and World Report. 17 February 2016. <>.
  6. Jaschik, Scott. “International Campuses on the Rise.” Inside Higher Ed. 3 September 2009. <>.
  7. Ibid.