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Digest of Education Statistics: 2008
Digest of Education Statistics: 2008

NCES 2009-020
March 2009

Chapter 1: All Levels of Education

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, family characteristics, population, and opinions about schools. Economic indicators and price indexes have been added to facilitate analyses.

The U.S. system of education can be described as having three levels of formal education (elementary, secondary, and postsecondary) (figure 1). 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 collegelevel coursework, 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 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 Appendix A: Guide to Sources and in the publications cited in the table source notes.

Enrollment and Attainment

Enrollment in elementary and secondary schools grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, reaching 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, began hitting new record levels in the mid-1990s, and has continued to reach a new record level in each subsequent year.

School enrollment rates among 5- and 6-year-olds, 7- to 13-year-olds, and 14- to 17-year-olds remained relatively steady between 1985 and 2007 (table 7). Since the enrollment rates of elementary and secondary school-age children changed by less than 2 percentage points between 1985 and 2007, increases in public and private elementary and secondary school enrollment have been driven primarily by increases in the number of children in these age groups. Increases in the enrollment rate of prekindergarten age children (ages 3 and 4) between 1985 and 2007 have also contributed to overall enrollment increases.

Public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 8 rose from 29.9 million in fall 1990 to 34.2 million in 2003 (table 3). After a decrease of less than 1 percent between fall 2003 and fall 2004, elementary enrollment increased to a projected total of 34.9 million for fall 2008. Public elementary enrollment is projected to continue this pattern of annual increases through 2017 (the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment). Public school enrollment in the upper grades rose from 11.3 million in 1990 to 15.1 million in 2006, with a projected enrollment of 14.9 million for 2008. Public secondary enrollment is projected to show a decrease of 3 percent between 2006 and 2011, and then increase again through 2017. Public secondary school enrollment in 2017 is expected to be about 5 percent higher than in 2008. Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to set new records every year from 2008 to 2017.

College enrollment reached 14.5 million in fall 1992 and decreased to 14.3 million in fall 1995 (table 3). Total college enrollment increased 28 percent between 1995 and 2007, and a further increase of 10 percent is expected between fall 2007 and fall 2017. The percentage of 18- and 19-year-olds enrolled in school rose from 61 to 67 percent between 1996 and 2006. About 36 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in school in 2007.

Enrollment in Private Institutions

The percentages of adults 25 years old and over completing high school and higher education have been rising. In 2008, 87 percent of the population 25 years old and over had completed at least high school and 29 percent had completed a bachelor's or higher degree (table 8 and figure 3). These percentages are higher than in 1998, when 83 percent had completed at least high school and 24 percent had completed a bachelor's or higher degree. In 2008, about 8 percent of people 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).

Teachers and Faculty

An estimated 3.7 million elementary and secondary school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2008 (table 4). This number has risen about 15 percent since 1998. The number of FTE public school teachers in 2008 was about 3.2 million, and the number of FTE private school teachers was about 0.5 million. FTE faculty at postsecondary degree-granting institutions totaled an estimated 0.9 million in 2008, including 0.6 million at public institutions and 0.3 million at private institutions (table 1).


Expenditures of educational institutions rose to an estimated $1,017 billion for the 2007–08 school year (table 26). Elementary and secondary schools spent about 62 percent of this total, and colleges and universities accounted for the remaining 38 percent. After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 36 percent between 1997–98 and 2007–08. Expenditures of elementary and secondary schools rose by an estimated 33 percent during this period, while total expenditures of colleges and universities rose by 41 percent. In 2007–08, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.4 percent of the gross domestic product (table 25).