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 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, enrollment in fall 2013 (55.4 million) and fall 2014 (55.6 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 2026 (the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment). Total elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to increase 2 percent between fall 2016 and fall 2026, when enrollment is expected to reach 56.8 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 with new record highs|
|Fall 2015 (projected)||55.8|
|Fall 2016 (projected)||55.9|
|Fall 2026 (projected)||56.8|
|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 2014; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1997–98 through 2013–14; and National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment Projection Model, 1972 through 2026.|
Between 1985 and 2015, the total public and private school enrollment rate for 5- and 6-year-olds decreased from 96 to 94 percent, while the enrollment rate for 7- to 13-year-olds decreased from 99 to 98 percent (table 103.20). During the same period, the enrollment rate for 14- to 17-year-olds increased from 95 to 96 percent. Since these enrollment rates changed by less than 4 percentage points between 1985 and 2015, increases in public and private elementary and secondary school enrollment primarily reflect the larger increases in the number of children in these age groups. Between 1985 and 2015, the number of 5- and 6-year-olds increased by 16 percent, the number of 7- to 13-year-olds increased by 26 percent, and the number of 14- to 17-year-olds increased by 13 percent (table 101.10). Increases in the enrollment rate of prekindergarten-age children (ages 3 and 4) from 39 percent in 1985 to 53 percent in 2015 (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 35.5 million for fall 2016. Public elementary enrollment is projected to increase 2 percent between 2016 and 2026. 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 2016 and then show a further increase of 2 percent between 2016 and 2026. Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to increase every year from 2016 to 2026.
The percentage of students in private elementary and secondary schools declined from 11.1 percent in fall 2004 to 9.6 percent in fall 2014 (table 105.30). In fall 2016, an estimated 5.2 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 5 percent between 2010 and 2015 (to 20.0 million). Total enrollment is expected to increase 13 percent between fall 2015 and fall 2026, reaching 22.6 million. The percentage of students who attended private institutions rose from 26 to 27 percent between 2005 and 2015. In fall 2015, about 5.4 million students attended private institutions, with about 4.1 million in nonprofit institutions and 1.3 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 2015, which was not measurably different from the percentage in 2005. The number of 18- and 19-year-olds in 2015 was less than 1 percent lower than in 2005 (tables 101.10 and 103.20). The enrollment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds rose from 36 to 39 percent and the number of 20- to 24-year-olds rose by 8 percent during the same period.
The percentages of adults 25 years old and over completing high school and higher education have been rising. Between 2006 and 2016, the percentage of the population 25 years old and over who had completed at least high school increased from 85 to 89 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 2016, about 9 percent of people 25 years old and 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 2006 to 92 percent in 2016 (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 2006 to 36 percent in 2016. In 2016, 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 2006 to 9 percent in 2016.
Between 2006 and 2016, changes in the educational attainment of young adults also occurred 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 (97 percent in 2016) (table 104.20 and figure 6). The percentage of Hispanic young adults who had completed at least high school rose from 63 percent in 2006 to 81 percent in 2016, an increase of 17 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 2 percentage points. 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 2006 to 15 percentage points in 2016. Between 2006 and 2016, the percentage of Black young adults who had completed high school increased from 86 to 91 percent, and the gap between the White and Black high school completion percentages decreased from 7 to 4 percentage points. In 2016, 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 (84 percent).
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 2016, compared with 43 percent of Whites, 23 percent of Blacks, 19 percent of Hispanics, 20 percent of Pacific Islanders, 10 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives, and 28 percent of persons of Two or more races. Between 2006 and 2016, 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 19 to 23 percent among Blacks, and from 9 to 19 percent among Hispanics. With these increases for all three groups, the gap in bachelor's degree attainment percentages between White and Black young adults increased from 16 percentage points in 2006 to 20 percentage points in 2016, and the gap between White and Hispanic young adults in 2016 (24 percentage points) was not measurably different from the gap in 2006.
A projected 3.6 million elementary and secondary school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2016 (table 105.40), which was about 1 percent lower than in 2006. The number of FTE public school teachers in 2016 was 3.2 million, and the number of FTE private school teachers was 0.4 million. FTE faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions totaled a projected 1.1 million in 2016, including 0.7 million at public institutions and 0.4 million at private institutions (table 105.10).
Expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated $1.3 trillion for the 2015–16 school year (table 106.20 and figure 2). Elementary and secondary schools spent 56 percent of this total ($707 billion), and colleges and universities spent the remaining 44 percent ($548 billion). After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 13 percent between 2005–06 and 2015–16. Inflation-adjusted expenditures of degree-granting postsecondary institutions rose by an estimated 29 percent. Expenditures of elementary and secondary schools were 3 percent higher in 2015–16 than in 2005–06. In 2015–16, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.0 percent of the gross domestic product (table 106.10).