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 105.30, 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 2011 (54.8 million) was about the same as in fall 2010 (54.9 million) but slightly lower than in fall 2006 (55.3 million). However, a pattern of annual enrollment increases is projected to begin with a slight increase in fall 2015 (no substantial change from fall 2014) and continue at least through fall 2023 (the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment), when enrollment is expected to reach 57.0 million.
|Table A. Total elementary and secondary school enrollment, by overall trends: Selected years, 1949–50 to fall 2023|
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 2011; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1997–98 through 2011–12; and National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment Projection Model, 1972 through 2023.|
Between 1985 and 2012, the total public and private school enrollment rate decreased by 3 percentage points for 5- and 6-year-olds. The enrollment rate for 7- to 13-year-olds decreased from 99 percent in 1985 to 98 percent in 2012; however, the enrollment rate for 14- to 17-year-olds increased from 95 to 97 percent during this period (table 103.20). Since these enrollment rates changed by 3 or fewer percentage points between 1985 and 2012, 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 2012, the number of 5- and 6-year-olds increased by 19 percent, the number of 7- to 13-year-olds increased by 25 percent, and the number of 14- to 17-year-olds increased by 12 percent (table 101.10). Increases in the enrollment rate of prekindergarten-age children (ages 3 and 4) from 39 percent in 1985 to 54 percent in 2012 (table 103.20) and in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds from 7.1 million to 8.1 million (table 101.10) 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 105.30). 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 2013. Public elementary enrollment is projected to increase about 5 percent overall between 2013 and 2023. 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 3 percent to a projected enrollment of 14.6 million in 2013. Public secondary enrollment is projected to increase about 3 percent between 2013 and 2023. Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to increase every year from 2014 to 2023.
The percentage of students in private elementary and secondary schools declined from 11.7 percent in fall 2001 to 9.6 percent in fall 2011 (table 105.30). In fall 2013, an estimated 5.1 million students were enrolled in private schools at the elementary and secondary levels.
Total enrollment in public and private degree-granting postsecondary institutions reached 14.5 million in fall 1992 and decreased to 14.3 million in fall 1995 (table 105.30). Total enrollment increased 47 percent between 1995 and 2010 (to 21.0 million), but declined 2 percent between 2010 and 2012 (to 20.6 million). Total enrollment is expected to increase 15 percent between fall 2012 and fall 2023, reaching 23.8 million. The percentage of students who attended private institutions rose from 23 to 28 percent between 2002 and 2012. In fall 2012, about 5.8 million students attended private institutions, with about 4.0 million in nonprofit institutions and 1.8 million in for-profit institutions (table 303.10). Enrollment increases in degree-granting postsecondary institutions have been driven by both increases in population and some increases in enrollment rates. Although the percentage of 18- and 19-year-olds enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2002 was not measurably different from the percentage in 2012 (45 and 47 percent, respectively), the number of 18- and 19-year-olds rose 7 percent (tables 101.10 and 103.20). The enrollment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds rose from 34 to 40 percent, and the number of 20- to 24-year-olds rose 12 percent during the same period.
The percentages of adults 25 years old and over completing high school and higher education have been rising. Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of the population 25 years old and over who had completed at least high school increased from 85 to 88 percent, and the percentage who had completed a bachelor's or higher degree increased from 27 to 32 percent (table 104.10 and figure 3). In 2013, 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 104.30).
Among young adults (25- to 29-year-olds), the percentage who had completed at least high school increased from 87 percent in 2003 to 90 percent in 2013 (table 104.20 and figure 4). The percentage of young adults who had completed a bachelor's or higher degree increased from 28 percent in 2003 to 34 percent in 2013. In 2013, about 6 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 104.30 and figure 5).
In both 2003 and 2013, the educational attainment of young adults differed by race/ethnicity. From 2003 to 2013, the percentage of Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed at least high school increased from 62 to 76 percent (table 104.20 and figure 6). During this period, there were no measurable changes in the percentages of White, Black, and Asian 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed high school. In 2013, 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 (90 percent); the percentage for Hispanics (76 percent) was lower than for Whites, Asians, and Blacks. In 2013, the percentage of bachelor's degree holders also varied among 25- to 29-year-olds of different racial/ethnic groups, with 60 percent of Asians in this age group holding a bachelor's or higher degree, compared with 40 percent of Whites, 20 percent of Blacks, and 16 percent of Hispanics. From 2003 to 2013, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who held a bachelor's or higher degree increased for Whites and Hispanics, but showed no measurable change for Blacks and Asians.
A projected 3.5 million elementary and secondary school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2013 (table 105.40), which was about 1 percent higher than in 2003. The number of FTE public school teachers in 2013 was about 3.1 million, and the number of FTE private school teachers was about 0.4 million. FTE faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions totaled a projected 1.0 million in 2013, including 0.6 million at public institutions and 0.4 million at private institutions (table 105.10).
Expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated $1.2 trillion for the 2012–13 school year (table 106.20 and figure 2). Elementary and secondary schools spent about 57 percent of this total ($669 billion), and colleges and universities spent the remaining 43 percent ($496 billion). After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 15 percent between 2002–03 and 2012–13. Inflation-adjusted expenditures of degree-granting postsecondary institutions rose by an estimated 29 percent. Expenditures of elementary and secondary schools were about 7 percent higher in 2012–13 than in 2002–03. In 2012–13, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.2 percent of the gross domestic product (table 106.10).