This chapter provides a broad overview of education in the United States. It brings together material from preprimary, elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education, as well as from the general population, to present a composite picture of the American educational system. Tables feature data on the total number of people enrolled in school, the number of teachers, the number of schools, and total expenditures for education at all levels. This chapter also includes statistics on education-related topics such as educational attainment, computer and internet usage, family characteristics, and population. Economic indicators and price indexes have been added to facilitate analyses.
Many of the statistics in this chapter are derived from the statistical activities of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In addition, substantial contributions have been drawn from the work of other groups, both governmental and nongovernmental, as shown in the source notes of the tables. Information on survey methodologies is contained in Appendix A: Guide to Sources and in the publications cited in the table source notes.
The U.S. system of education can be described as having three levels of formal education (elementary, secondary, and postsecondary) (figure 1). Students may spend 1 to 3 years in preprimary programs (prekindergarten [PK] and kindergarten [K]), which may be offered either in separate schools or in elementary schools that also offer higher grades. (In Digest of Education Statistics tables, prekindergarten and kindergarten are generally defined as a part of elementary education.) Following kindergarten, students ordinarily spend from 6 to 8 years in elementary school. The elementary school program is followed by a 4- to 6-year program in secondary school. Students normally complete the entire program through grade 12 by age 18. Education at the elementary and secondary levels is provided in a range of institutional settings—including elementary schools (preprimary schools, middle schools, and schools offering broader ranges of elementary grades); secondary schools (junior high schools, high schools, and senior high schools); and combined elementary/secondary schools—that vary in structure from locality to locality.
High school graduates who decide to continue their education may enter a specialized career/technical institution, a 2-year community or junior college, or a 4-year college or university. A 2-year college normally offers the first 2 years of a standard 4-year college curriculum and a selection of terminal career and technical education programs. Academic courses completed at a 2-year college are usually transferable for credit at a 4-year college or university. A career/technical institution offers postsecondary technical training programs of varying lengths leading to a specific career.
An associate’s degree requires at least 2 years of postsecondary coursework, and a bachelor’s degree normally requires 4 years of postsecondary coursework. At least 1 year of coursework beyond the bachelor’s is necessary for a master’s degree, while a doctor’s degree usually requires a minimum of 3 or 4 years beyond the bachelor’s.
Professional schools differ widely in admission requirements and program length. Medical students, for example, generally complete a bachelor’s program of premedical studies at a college or university before they can enter the 4-year program at a medical school. Law programs normally require 3 years of coursework beyond the bachelor’s degree level.
Total enrollment in public and private elementary and secondary schools (prekindergarten through grade 12) grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, reaching a peak year in 1971 (table A, table 3, and figure 2). This enrollment rise reflected what is known as the “baby boom,” a dramatic increase in births following World War II. Between 1971 and 1984, total elementary and secondary school enrollment decreased every year, reflecting the decline in the size of the school-age population over that period. After these years of decline, enrollment in elementary and secondary schools started increasing in fall 1985, began hitting new record levels in the mid-1990s, and continued to reach new record levels every year through 2006. Enrollment in fall 2010 (54.9 million) was about the same as in fall 2009 (also 54.9 million), but slightly lower than in fall 2006 (55.3 million). However, annual enrollment increases are projected from fall 2011 through fall 2021 (the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment).
|Table A. Total elementary and secondary school enrollment, by overall trends: Selected years, 1949–50 to fall 2011|
Trend and year
Number of students
|"Baby boom" increases|
|1949–50 school year||28.5|
|Fall 1971 (peak)||51.3|
|13 years with annual declines|
|Fall 1972 (first year of decline)||50.7|
|Fall 1984 (final year of decline)||44.9|
|Annual increases from 1985 to 2006|
|Fall 1996 (new record highs begin)||51.5|
|Fall 2006 (final year of record highs)||55.3|
|Slight declines or stable enrollment|
|Annual increases projected to start again|
|SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Biennial Survey of Education in the United States, 1949–50; Statistics of Public Elementary and Secondary School Systems, 1959 through 1972; Common Core of Data (CCD), 1984 through 2010; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1997–98 through 2009–10; and Projections of Education Statistics to 2021.|
From 1985 to 2011, total public and private school enrollment rates changed by about 2 percentage points or less for 5- and 6-year-olds (no measurable difference between 1985 and 2011), 7- to 13-year-olds (99 percent in 1985 vs. 98 percent in 2011), and 14- to 17-year-olds (95 percent in 1985 vs. 97 percent in 2011) (table 7). Since these enrollment rates remained relatively steady between 1985 and 2011, increases in public and private elementary and secondary school enrollment primarily reflect increases in the number of children in these age groups. Between 1985 and 2011, the number of 5- and 6-year-olds increased by 18 percent, the number of 7- to 13-year-olds increased by 25 percent, and the number of 14- to 17-year-olds increased by 13 percent (table 19). Increases in the enrollment rate of prekindergarten age children (ages 3 and 4) from 39 percent in 1985 to 52 percent in 2011 (table 7) and in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds from 7.1 million to 8.2 million (table 19) also contributed to overall prekindergarten through grade 12 enrollment increases.
Public school enrollment at the elementary level (prekindergarten through grade 8) rose from 29.9 million in fall 1990 to 34.2 million in fall 2003 (table 3). After a decrease of less than 1 percent between fall 2003 and fall 2004, elementary enrollment generally increased to a projected total of 35.1 million for fall 2012. Public elementary enrollment is projected to continue increasing annually, for an increase of 7 percent between 2012 and 2021. Public school enrollment at the secondary level (grades 9 through 12) rose from 11.3 million in 1990 to 15.1 million in 2007, but then declined 2 percent to a projected enrollment of 14.8 million in 2012. Public secondary enrollment is projected to increase about 5 percent between 2012 and 2021. Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to set new records every year from 2012 to 2021.
The percentage of students in private elementary and secondary schools declined from 11.4 percent in fall 1999 to 10.0 percent in fall 2009 (table 3). In fall 2012, an estimated 5.3 million students were enrolled in private schools at the elementary and secondary levels.
Total enrollment in public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions reached 14.5 million in fall 1992 and decreased to 14.3 million in fall 1995 (derived from table 3). Total enrollment increased 47 percent between 1995 and 2011 (to 21.0 million), and a further increase of 13 percent is expected between fall 2011 and fall 2021. The percentage of students who attended private institutions rose from 23 to 28 percent between 2001 and 2011. In fall 2011, about 5.9 million students attended private institutions, with about 3.9 million in nonprofit institutions and 2.0 million in for-profit institutions (table 221). Enrollment increases in postsecondary degree-granting institutions have been driven by both increases in population and increases in enrollment rates. For example, the percentage of 18- and 19-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary degree-granting institutions rose from 44 to 50 percent between 2001 and 2011, and the enrollment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds rose from 34 percent to 40 percent (table 7). During the same period, the number of 18- and 19-year-olds rose 8 percent, and the number of 20- to 24-year-olds rose 12 percent (table 19).
The percentages of adults 25 years old and over completing high school and higher education have been rising. In 2012, some 88 percent of the population 25 years old and over had completed at least high school, and 31 percent had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree (table 8 and figure 3). These percentages are higher than in 2002, when 84 percent had completed at least high school and 27 percent had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree. In 2012, about 8 percent of people 25 years old or over held a master’s degree as their highest degree and 3 percent held a doctor’s or first-professional degree (table 10).
Among young adults (25- to 29-year-olds), the percentage who had completed at least high school increased from 86 percent in 2002 to 90 percent in 2012 (table 9 and figure 4).1 The percentage of young adults who had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 29 percent in 2002 to 33 percent in 2012. In 2012, about 5 percent of young adults held a master’s degree as their highest degree and 2 percent held a doctor’s or first-professional degree (table 10 and figure 5).
In both 2002 and 2012, the educational attainment of young adults differed by race/ethnicity. From 2002 to 2012, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed at least high school increased from 93 to 95 percent for Whites and from 62 to 75 percent for Hispanics (figure 6). During this period, there was no measurable change in the percentage of Black and Asian 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed high school. In 2012, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed high school was higher for Whites (95 percent) and Asians (96 percent) than for Blacks (89 percent); the percentage for Hispanics (75 percent) was lower than for Whites, Asians, or Blacks (table 9 and figure 6). In 2012, the percentage of bachelor’s degree holders also varied among 25- to 29-year-olds of different racial/ethnic groups, with 62 percent of Asians in this age group holding a bachelor’s or higher degree, compared with 40 percent of Whites, 23 percent of Blacks, and 15 percent of Hispanics.
A projected 3.7 million elementary and secondary school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2012 (table 4), an increase of about 7 percent over 2002. The number of FTE public school teachers in 2012 was about 3.3 million, and the number of FTE private school teachers was about 0.4 million. FTE faculty at postsecondary degree-granting institutions totaled a projected 1.0 million in 2012, including 0.7 million at public institutions and 0.4 million at private institutions (table 1).
Expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated $1.2 trillion for the 2011–12 school year (table 29 and figure 2). Elementary and secondary schools spent about 59 percent of this total ($700 billion), and colleges and universities spent the remaining 41 percent ($483 billion). After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 23 percent between 2001–02 and 2011–12. Inflation-adjusted expenditures of elementary and secondary schools rose by an estimated 16 percent during this period, while those of postsecondary degree-granting institutions rose by an estimated 35 percent. In 2011–12, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.8 percent of the gross domestic product (table 28).
1 For the 2002 data on high school completion and bachelor’s degree attainment of 25- to 29-year-olds, see Digest of Education Statistics 2011 (NCES 2012-001), table 8.