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Digest of Education Statistics: 2009
Digest of Education Statistics: 2009

NCES 2010-013
April 2010

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 may spend 1 to 3 years in prekindergarten and kindergarten, 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 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 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 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 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.


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 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 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 for fall 2007 (55.2 million) was slightly lower than in fall 2006 (55.3 million); however, beginning with fall 2008, enrollments are projected to continue rising again.

Table A. Total elementary and secondary school enrollment, by overall trends: Selected years, 1949–50 to fall 2008
Trend and year Number of students (in millions)
“Baby boom” increases  
1949–50 school year 28.5
Fall 1959 40.9
Fall 1969 51.1
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 1985 45
Fall 1996 (new record highs begin) 51.5
Fall 2006 (final year of record highs) 55.3
Slight decline followed by increases  
Fall 2007 55.2
Fall 2008 (new record highs begin) 55.5

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 2007; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1997–98 through 2007–08; and Projections of Education Statistics to 2018.

From 1985 to 2008, total public and private school enrollment rates changed by 2 percentage points or less for 5- and 6-year-olds (96 percent in 1985 vs. 94 percent in 2008), 7- to 13-year-olds (99 percent in both years), and 14- to 17-year-olds (95 vs. 97 percent) (table 7). Since these enrollment rates remained relatively steady between 1985 and 2008, 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. Between 1985 and 2008, the number of 5- and 6-year-olds increased by 17 percent, the number of 7- to 13-year-olds increased by 21 percent, and the number of 14- to 17-year-olds increased by 14 percent (table 15). Increases in the enrollment rate of prekindergarten age children (ages 3 and 4) from 39 percent in 1985 to 53 percent in 2008 (table 7) and in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds from 7.1 million to 8.3 million (table 15) 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 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 35.0 million for fall 2009. Public elementary enrollment is projected to continue a pattern of annual increases through 2018 (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 2007, with a projected enrollment of 14.8 million for 2009. Public secondary enrollment is projected to show a decrease of 3 percent between 2007 and 2011, and then increase again through 2018. Public secondary school enrollment in 2018 is expected to be about 6 percent higher than in 2009. Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to set new records every year from 2009 to 2018.

The percentage of students in private elementary and secondary schools declined from 11.4 percent in 1997 to 10.7 percent in 2007 (table 3). In 2009, a projected 5.8 million students were enrolled in private schools at the elementary and secondary levels.

Total public and private college and university enrollment reached 14.5 million in fall 1992 and decreased to 14.3 million in fall 1995 (table 3). Total college and university enrollment increased 34 percent between 1995 and 2008 (to 19.1 million), and a further increase of 12 percent is expected between fall 2008 and fall 2018. The percentage of college and university students who attended private colleges and universities rose from 23 to 27 percent between 1998 and 2008. In fall 2008, about 5.1 million students attended private colleges and universities, with about 3.7 million in not-for-profit institutions and 1.5 million in for-profit institutions (table 189). Enrollment increases in colleges and universities 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 colleges and universities rose from 46 to 49 percent between 1998 and 2008, while the enrollment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds rose from 33 percent to 37 percent (table 7). During the same period, the number of 18- and 19-year-olds rose 10 percent, and the number of 20- to 24-year-olds rose 16 percent (table 15).

Educational Attainment

The percentages of adults 25 years old and over completing high school and higher education have been rising. In 2009, some 87 percent of the population 25 years old and over had completed at least high school and 30 percent had completed a bachelor's or higher degree (table 8 and figure 3). These percentages are higher than in 1999, when 83 percent had completed at least high school and 25 percent had completed a bachelor's or higher degree. In 2009, 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

A projected 3.7 million elementary and secondary school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2009 (table 4), an increase of about 12 percent over 1999. The number of FTE public school teachers in 2009 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 a projected 1.0 million in 2009, including 0.6 million at public institutions and 0.3 million at private institutions (table 1).


Expenditures of educational institutions rose to an estimated $1.1 trillion for the 2008–09 school year (table 27). Elementary and secondary schools spent about 60 percent of this total ($661 billion), and colleges and universities spent the remaining 40 percent ($432 billion). After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 39 percent between 1998–99 and 2008–09. Inflation-adjusted expenditures of elementary and secondary schools rose by an estimated 32 percent during this period, while those of colleges and universities rose by an estimated 51 percent. In 2008–09, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.6 percent of the gross domestic product (table 26).