This chapter provides a broad overview of education in the United States. It brings together material from preprimary, elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education, and from the general population to present a composite picture of the American educational system. Tables include the total number of persons 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, family characteristics, population, and opinions about schools. Economic indicators and price indexes have been added to facilitate analyses.
Figure 1 shows the structure of education in the United States. It presents the three levels of formal education (elementary, secondary, and postsecondary) and gives the approximate age range of persons at the elementary and secondary levels. Students ordinarily spend from 6 to 8 years in the elementary grades, which may be preceded by 1 to 3 years in nursery school and kindergarten. 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.
High school graduates who decide to continue their education may enter a technical or vocational 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 vocational programs. Academic courses completed at a 2 year college are usually transferable for credit at a 4 year college or university. A technical or vocational institution offers postsecondary technical training leading to a specific career.
An associate’s degree requires at least 2 years of college level work, and a bachelor's degree normally requires 4 years of college-level 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 in 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.
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 the Guide to Sources in the appendix and in the publications cited in the source notes.
Enrollment in elementary and secondary schools grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s and reached a peak in 1971 (table 3 and figure 2). This enrollment rise was caused by what is known as the "baby boom," a dramatic increase in births following World War II. From 1971 to 1984, total elementary and secondary school enrollment decreased every year, reflecting the decline in the school age population over that period. After these years of decline, enrollment in elementary and secondary schools started increasing in fall 1985, and began hitting new record enrollment levels in the mid-1990s.
Public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade eight rose from 29.9 million in fall 1990 to 34.1 million in 2002, with a projected enrollment of 33.7 million for fall 2004 (table 3). Enrollment in the upper grades rose from 11.3 million in 1990 to 14.1 million in 2002, with a projected enrollment of 14.6 million for 2004. The growing numbers of young pupils who have been filling the elementary schools will cause some increases at the secondary school level through 2007. Between fall 2002 and fall 2005, public elementary enrollment is expected to decrease slightly, and then increase again between 2006 and 2014. Public secondary enrollment is projected to rise through 2007, and then decline. Overall, school enrollment is projected to set new records every year until at least 2014, the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment.
The proportion of students in private elementary and secondary schools has changed little over the past 10 years, remaining between 11 and 12 percent (table 3). The percentage of college students who attended private colleges and universities ranged from 21 to 24 percent between 1993 and 2004. In 2004, a projected 6.3 million students were enrolled in private schools at the elementary and secondary levels and 4.0 million students were in private degree-granting institutions.
College enrollment peaked at 14.5 million in fall 1992 and decreased to 14.3 million in fall 1995 (table 3). Total college enrollment increased between 1995 and 2002, and further increases are expected through 2014.
School enrollment rates among 5- and 6-year-olds, 7- to 13-year-olds, 14- to 17-year-olds, and 18- and 19-year-olds remained relatively steady between 1993 and 2003 (table 7). The proportion of 20- to 24-year-olds enrolled in school rose from 31 percent to 36 percent during the same time period. The increase in the overall enrollment rate for the 3- to 34-year-old population reflects, in part the changing age distribution of the population, and to some extent, changes in enrollment rates at specific ages (tables 7 and 15).
Educational attainment has risen in the adult population. In 2004, 85 percent of the population 25 years old and over had completed high school and 28 percent had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree (table 8 and figure 3). This is higher than in 1994, when 81 percent had completed high school and 22 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree. In 2004, about 7 percent of persons 25 years old or over held a master's degree as their highest degree, 2 percent held a professional degree (e.g., medicine or law), and 1 percent held a doctor's degree (table 9 and figure 5).
An estimated 3.5 million elementary and secondary school teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2004 (table 4). This number has risen about 20 percent since 1994. The number of public school teachers in 2004 was about 3.1 million and the number in private schools was estimated at 0.4 million.
Education expenditures rose to an estimated high of $866 billion in the 2003–04 school year (table 29). Elementary and secondary schools spent about 59 percent of this total, and colleges and universities accounted for the remaining 41 percent. Elementary and secondary schools and colleges and universities spent an estimated 7.9 percent of the gross domestic product in 2003–04.