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 the total expenditures for education at all levels. This chapter also includes statistics on education-related topics such as educational attainment, 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 typically 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 typically 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 typically 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 typically involve 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, after which enrollment declined slightly from its 2006 level. However, fall 2013 enrollment (55.4 million) was slightly higher than the fall 2006 record level of 55.3 million. A pattern of annual enrollment increases is projected to continue at least through fall 2025 (the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment), when enrollment is expected to reach 56.5 million.
|Table A. Total elementary and secondary school enrollment, by overall trends: Selected years, 1949–50 through fall 2025|
|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|
|Fall 2014 (projected)||55.5|
|Fall 2025 (projected)||56.5|
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 2013; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1997–98 through 2013–14; and National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment Projection Model, 1972 through 2025.
Between 1985 and 2014, the total public and private school enrollment rate for 5- and 6-year-olds decreased from 96 percent to 93 percent, while the enrollment rate for 7- to 13-year-olds decreased from 99 percent to 98 percent (table 103.20). The enrollment rate for 14- to 17-year-olds was 95 percent in 1985 and in 2014. Since these enrollment rates changed by 3 or fewer percentage points between 1985 and 2014, 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 2014, the number of 5- and 6-year-olds increased by 18 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 2014 (table 103.20) and in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds from 7.1 million to 8.0 million (table 101.10) also contributed to overall increases in prekindergarten through grade 12 enrollment.
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). Elementary enrollment was less than 1 percent lower in fall 2004 than in fall 2003 and then generally increased to a projected total of 35.3 million for fall 2015. Public elementary enrollment is projected to increase 2 percent between 2015 and 2025. 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 2 percent to 14.7 million in 2011. Public secondary enrollment is projected to increase 2 percent between 2011 and 2015 and then show a further increase of 3 percent between 2015 and 2025. Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to increase every year from 2015 to 2025.
The percentage of students in private elementary and secondary schools declined from 11.2 percent in fall 2003 to 9.7 percent in fall 2013 (table 105.30). In fall 2015, an estimated 5.3 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, but decreased every year through fall 1995 (table 105.30). Total enrollment increased 47 percent between 1995 and 2010 (to 21.0 million), but declined 4 percent between 2010 and 2014 (to 20.2 million). Total enrollment is expected to increase 15 percent between fall 2014 and fall 2025, reaching 23.3 million. The percentage of students who attended private institutions rose from 25 to 27 percent between 2004 and 2014. In fall 2014, about 5.6 million students attended private institutions, with about 4.0 million in nonprofit institutions and 1.6 million in for-profit institutions (table 303.10). Enrollment increases in degree-granting postsecondary institutions have been driven by increases in population, as well as by increases in enrollment rates for 20- to 24-year-olds. The percentage of 18- and 19-year-olds enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions was 49 percent in 2014, which was not measurably different from the percentage in 2004. The number of 18- and 19-year-olds was 1 percent higher in 2014 than in 2004 (tables 101.10 and 103.20). The enrollment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds rose from 35 to 38 percent, and the number of 20- to 24-year-olds rose by 10 percent during the same period.
The percentages of adults 25 years old and over completing high school and higher education have been rising. Between 2005 and 2015, 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 28 to 33 percent (table 104.10 and figure 3). In 2015, about 9 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 86 percent in 2005 to 91 percent in 2015 (table 104.20 and figure 4). The percentage of young adults who had completed a bachelor's or higher degree increased from 29 percent in 2005 to 36 percent in 2015. In 2015, about 7 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). Overall, the percentage of young adults who had a master's or higher degree rose from 6 percent in 2005 to 9 percent in 2015.
Between 2005 and 2015, changes occurred in the educational attainment of young adults (25- to 29-year-olds) by race/ethnicity. During this period, the percentages who had completed at least high school increased for Hispanic, White, and Black young adults, but there was no measurable change in the percentage for Asian young adults (96 percent in 2015) (table 104.20 and figure 6). The percentage of Hispanic young adults who had completed at least high school rose from 63 percent in 2005 to 77 percent in 2015, an increase of 14 percentage points. During the same period, the percentage of White young adults who had completed at least high school rose from 93 to 95 percent, an increase of 3 percentage points (based on unrounded data). Since the increase for White young adults was smaller than the increase for Hispanic young adults, the gap between the high school completion percentages for these two groups decreased from 30 percentage points in 2005 to 18 percentage points in 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of Black young adults who had completed high school increased from 87 percent to 93 percent, and the gap between the White and Black high school completion percentages decreased from 6 to 3 percentage points. In 2015, the percentage of young adults who had completed at least high school was higher for Whites and Asians than for Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives.
The percentage of bachelor's degree holders also varied among young adults of different racial/ethnic groups, with 66 percent of Asians in the 25- to 29-year-old age group holding a bachelor's or higher degree in 2015, compared with 43 percent of Whites, 21 percent of Blacks, 16 percent of Hispanics, 11 percent of Pacific Islanders, 15 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives, and 30 percent of persons of Two or more races. Between 2005 and 2015, the percentages who had completed a bachelor's or higher degree increased for White, Black, and Hispanic young adults, but showed no measurable change for Asian young adults. During this 10-year period, the percentage of young adults who held a bachelor's or higher degree increased from 34 to 43 percent among Whites, from 18 to 21 percent among Blacks, and from 11 to 16 percent among Hispanics. With these increases for all three groups, the gap in bachelor's degree attainment percentages between Whites and Blacks increased by 5 percentage points between 2005 and 2015, and the gap between Whites and Hispanics increased by 3 percentage points.
A projected 3.6 million elementary and secondary school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2015 (table 105.40), which was not substantially different from the number in 2005. The number of FTE public school teachers in 2015 was 3.1 million, and the number of FTE private school teachers was 0.4 million. FTE faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions totaled a projected 1.0 million in 2015, including 0.7 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 2014–15 school year (table 106.20 and figure 2). Elementary and secondary schools spent 57 percent of this total ($696 billion), and colleges and universities spent the remaining 43 percent ($532 billion). After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 14 percent between 2004–05 and 2014–15. Inflation-adjusted expenditures of degree-granting postsecondary institutions rose by an estimated 29 percent. Expenditures of elementary and secondary schools were 4 percent higher in 2014–15 than in 2004–05. In 2014–15, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.1 percent of the gross domestic product (table 106.10).