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Digest of Education Statistics: 2011
Digest of Education Statistics: 2011

NCES 2012-001
May 2012

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, 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

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 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.


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 2009 (54.9 million) was slightly lower than in fall 2006 (55.3 million); however, enrollments are projected to begin rising again after 2010.

Table A. Total elementary and secondary school enrollment, by overall trends: Selected years, 1949–50 to fall 2010

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 45.0
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 55.5
Fall 2009 55.3
Fall 2010 54.7

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 2009; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1997–98 through 2009–10; and Projections of Education Statistics to 2020.

From 1985 to 2010, total public and private school enrollment rates changed by about 2 percentage points or less for 5- and 6-year-olds (96 percent in 1985 vs. 94 percent in 2010), 7- to 13-year-olds (99 percent in 1985 vs. 98 percent in 2010), and 14- to 17-year-olds (95 percent in 1985 vs. 97 percent in 2010) (table 7). Since these enrollment rates remained relatively steady between 1985 and 2010, 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 2010, the number of 5- and 6-year-olds increased by 21 percent, the number of 7- to 13-year-olds increased by 23 percent, and the number of 14- to 17-year-olds increased by 11 percent (table 20). Increases in the enrollment rate of prekindergarten age children (ages 3 and 4) from 39 percent in 1985 to 53 percent in 2010 (table 7) and in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds from 7.1 million to 8.6 million (table 20) 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 34.9 million for fall 2011. Public elementary enrollment is projected to continue a pattern of annual increases through 2020 (the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment). Public school enrollment at the secondary level (grades 9 through 12) rose from 11.3 million in 1990 to 15.1 million in 2007, with a projected enrollment of 14.5 million for 2011. Public secondary enrollment is projected to show a decrease of 4 percent between 2007 and 2012, and then increase again through 2020. Public secondary school enrollment in 2020 is expected to be about 5 percent higher than in 2012. Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to set new records every year from 2011 to 2020.

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 2011, 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 (table 3). Total enrollment increased 47 percent between 1995 and 2010 (to 21.0 million), and a further increase of 15 percent is expected between fall 2010 and fall 2020. The percentage of students who attended private institutions rose from 23 to 28 percent between 2000 and 2010. In fall 2010, about 5.9 million students attended private institutions, with about 3.9 million in not-for-profit institutions and 2.0 million in for-profit institutions (table 197). 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 45 to 51 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the enrollment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds rose from 32 percent to 39 percent (table 7). During the same period, the number of 18- and 19-year-olds rose 7 percent, and the number of 20- to 24-year-olds rose 14 percent (table 20).

Educational Attainment

The percentages of adults 25 years old and over completing high school and higher education have been rising. In 2011, some 88 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 2001, when 84 percent had completed at least high school and 26 percent had completed a bachelor's or higher degree. In 2011, 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 9).

Among young adults (25- to 29-year-olds), the percentage who had completed at least high school increased from 88 percent in 2001 to 89 percent in 2011 (table 8 and figure 4). The percentage of young adults who had completed a bachelor's or higher degree increased from 29 percent in 2001 to 32 percent in 2011. In 2011, 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 9 and figure 5).

The educational attainment of young adults continued to differ by race/ethnicity in 2011. From 2001 to 2011, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed at least high school increased from 93 to 94 percent for Whites and from 63 to 71 percent for Hispanics (table 8 and 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 2011, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed high school was higher for Whites (94 percent) and Asians (95 percent) than for Blacks (88 percent) and Hispanics (71 percent). In 2011, the percentage of bachelor's degree holders also varied among 25- to 29-year-olds of different racial/ethnic groups, with 57 percent of Asians in this age group holding a bachelor's or higher degree, compared with 39 percent of Whites, 20 percent of Blacks, and 13 percent of Hispanics.

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 2011 (table 4), an increase of about 7 percent over 2001. The number of FTE public school teachers in 2011 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 2011, including 0.7 million at public institutions and 0.4 million at private institutions (table 1).


Expenditures of educational institutions rose to an estimated $1.1 trillion for the 2010–11 school year (table 29). Elementary and secondary schools spent about 59 percent of this total ($673 billion), and colleges and universities spent the remaining 41 percent ($460 billion). After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 27 percent between 2000–01 and 2010–11. Inflation-adjusted expenditures of elementary and secondary schools rose by an estimated 20 percent during this period, while those of postsecondary degree-granting institutions rose by an estimated 40 percent. In 2010–11, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.8 percent of the gross domestic product (table 28).