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 education system. Tables summarize 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 school-age resident populations, characteristics of households with children, and educational attainment. 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 generally as having three levels of formal education: elementary, secondary, and postsecondary (figure 1). However, these levels can be defined quite differently across school districts. For example, 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. (For simplicity, in Digest of Education Statistics tables, prekindergarten and kindergarten are generally defined as a part of elementary education, although preprimary schooling is not universally included in the elementary level.) 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 of elementary and secondary schooling by age 18. This formal schooling is provided in a range of institutional settings—including elementary schools (preprimary schools, primary schools, middle schools, and other types of schools offering broader ranges of elementary grades); secondary schools (junior high schools, high schools, and senior high schools); and combined (multi-age, ungraded, and 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, awarding an associate’s degree upon completion of at least 2 years of postsecondary coursework, as well as 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 that lead to a specific career.
A 4-year college or university offers at least a bachelor’s degree, which typically requires 4 years of postsecondary coursework, and some offer master’s or doctor’s degrees. At least 1 year of coursework beyond a bachelor’s degree is necessary for a master’s degree, while a doctor’s degree (which comprises a wide variety of degrees, including doctor of medicine [M.D.], juris doctor [J.D.], and doctor of philosophy [Ph.D.]) usually requires a minimum of 3 or 4 years beyond a bachelor’s degree.
Professional schools are pathways to licensed or ordained professions, such as dentistry, law, or ministry. They 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 professional medical school. Law programs typically involve 3 years of coursework beyond a bachelor’s degree. Depending on the length of the program and the degree awarded, degrees from professional schools are categorized as either master’s or doctor’s degrees.
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 growth in enrollment 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 a 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 declining 1 percent between 2006 and 2011, enrollments in 2019 are projected to have increased 3 percent over 2011 levels. Enrollments since fall 2013 have remained above the fall 2006 enrollment of 55.3 million, the final year of the post “baby boom” record highs. Before the coronavirus pandemic, national changes in school enrollment were projected to remain relatively small through 2029, with annual percentage changes of less than 0.4 percent. However, as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic remains unknown, these projections are subject to revision.
|Table A. Total elementary and secondary school enrollment, by overall trends: Selected years, 1949–50 through fall 2029|
|Trend and year||Number of students |
|"Baby boom" increases|
|1949–50 school year||28.5|
|Fall 1971 (peak)||51.3|
|13 years with annual post “baby boom” |
|Fall 1972 (first year of decline)||50.7|
|Fall 1984 (final year of decline)||44.9|
|Annual increases from 1985 to 2006|
|Fall 1996 (surpasses “baby boom” peak)||51.5|
|Fall 2006 (final year of post “baby |
boom” record highs)
|Slight declines or stable enrollment|
|Annual increases with new record highs|
|Fall 2018 (projected)||56.4|
|Fall 2019 (projected)||56.3|
|Fall 2029 (projected)||56.8*|
|*Subject to revision once the impact of the coronavirus pandemic becomes known.|
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 2017; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1997–98 through 2017–18; and National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment Projection Model, 1972 through 2029.
Between 1985 and 2018, the total public and private elementary and secondary school enrollment rate decreased for 5- and 6-year-olds (typical ages for preprimary grades) from 96 to 94 percent, and for 7- to 13-year-olds (typical ages for elementary grades) from 99 to 98 percent (table 103.20). In contrast, the enrollment rate for 14- to 17-year-olds (typical ages for secondary grades) in 2018 (95 percent) was not measurably different from the rate in 1985. As there were no measurable increases in enrollment rates between 1985 and 2018, increases in the total number of enrolled elementary and secondary students primarily reflect the increases in the number of children in these age groups. Between 1985 and 2018, 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 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 2018, and in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds, from 7.1 million to 8.1 million, also contributed to overall increases in prekindergarten through grade 12 enrollment (tables 101.10 and 103.20).
The vast majority of elementary and secondary students in the United States attend public schools. Considering only these students, 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). Public elementary school enrollment was lower in fall 2004 than in fall 2003 (by less than 1 percent) and then generally increased to a projected total of 35.4 million for fall 2019. From 2019 to 2029, public elementary school enrollment has been projected to increase 2 percent. At the secondary level (grades 9 through 12), public school enrollment rose from 11.3 million in 1990 to 15.1 million in 2007. After a decline of 2 percent to 14.7 million in 2011, public secondary enrollments are projected to have increased 3 percent by 2019.
The percentage of students opting out of public schools in favor of private elementary and secondary schools was lower in 2017 (10.1 percent) than in 2007 (10.7 percent; table 105.30). In fall 2019, an estimated 5.7 million students were enrolled in private schools at the elementary and secondary levels, or 10.1 percent of students.
At the postsecondary level, total enrollment in public and private degree-granting institutions increased 47 percent between 1995 and 2010 (to 21.0 million) but declined 7 percent between 2010 and 2018 (to 19.6 million; table 105.30). Total enrollment is expected to increase 2 percent between fall 2018 and fall 2029, reaching 20.1 million. The percentage of students who attended private institutions (including both for-profit and nonprofit institutions) in fall 2018 (26 percent) was 1 percentage point lower than in 2008. During this period, the percentage of postsecondary students attending private nonprofit institutions increased from 19 to 21 percent and the percentage of students attending for-profit institutions decreased from 8 to 5 percent (table 303.10). In fall 2018, about 5.1 million students attended private institutions, with 4.1 million in nonprofit institutions and 1.0 million in for-profit institutions.
Despite a decrease since 2010, enrollment in postsecondary degree-granting institutions in fall 2018 was 3 percent higher than in fall 2008 (table 105.30). Changes in total enrollment may be affected by changes in enrollment rates, changes in the population, or both. While the postsecondary enrollment rate of 18- and 19-year-olds in 2018 (50 percent) was not measurably different from the percentage in 2008, the overall number of 18- and 19-year-olds in the population decreased 5 percent, from 9.0 million in 2008 to 8.6 million in 2018 (tables 101.10 and 103.20). In contrast, although the enrollment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds in 2018 (39 percent) was also not measurably different from the rate in 2008, the number of 20- to 24-year-olds was 3 percent higher in 2018 (21.9 million) than in 2008 (21.2 million).
The percentage of people 25 years old and over who earned a high school degree (or equivalent) or higher has been increasing over the past decade. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of people 25 years old and over who had completed at least high school increased from 87 to 90 percent, and the percentage who had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 30 to 36 percent (table 104.10 and figure 3). In 2019, about 10 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 25- to 29-year-olds, the percentage who had completed at least high school increased from 89 to 94 percent between 2009 and 2019, and the percentage who had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 31 to 39 percent (table 104.20 and figure 4). Overall, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who held a master’s or higher degree rose from 7 percent in 2009 to 9 percent in 2019, including about 2 percent who held a doctor’s or first-professional degree (tables 104.20 and 104.30 and figures 4 and 5).
These changes in the educational attainment of 25- to 29-year-olds over the last decade varied by race/ethnicity. The percentages of Hispanic and White 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed at least high school increased between 2009 and 2019; however, there was no measurable change among Asian and Black 25- to 29-year-olds (table 104.20 and figure 6). The percentage of Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed at least high school rose from 69 percent in 2009 to 86 percent in 2019, an increase of 17 percentage points. During the same period, the percentage of White 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed at least high school rose from 95 to 96 percent. Taken together, the gap between the high school completion percentages for these two groups decreased from 26 percentage points in 2009 to 10 percentage points in 2019. In contrast, the gap between the White and Black high school completion percentages in 2019 (5 percentage points) was not measurably different from the gap in 2009. Whereas high school completion rates were higher among White 25- to 29-year-olds than among their Black or Hispanic peers in 2019, they were not measurably different from the high school completion rates of Asian 25- to 29-year-olds (97 percent).
The percentage of bachelor’s degree holders also varied among 25- to 29-year-olds of different racial/ethnic groups. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentages who had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree showed no measurable change for those who were of Two or more races, Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native (34 percent, 22 percent, and 14 percent, respectively, in 2019). In contrast, the percentage who had completed a bachelor’s or higher degree increased for Asian, White, Black, and Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds during this 10-year period. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentages who held a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 60 to 71 percent among Asian 25- to 29-year-olds, from 37 to 45 percent among White 25- to 29-year-olds, from 19 to 29 percent among Black 25- to 29-year-olds, and from 12 to 21 percent among Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds (table 104.20 and figure 6). The gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment percentages between White and Black 25- to 29-year-olds (16 percentage points) and White and Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds (24 percentage points) in 2019 were not measurably different from these gaps in 2009.
A projected 3.7 million elementary and secondary school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2019, which was less than 1 percent higher than in 2009 (table 105.40). Of these 3.7 million FTE elementary and secondary school teachers in 2019, about 3.2 million taught in public schools and 0.5 million taught in private schools.
FTE faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions totaled a projected 1.1 million in 2019, including 0.7 million at public institutions and 0.4 million at private institutions (table 105.10).
Expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated $1.5 trillion for the 2018–19 school year (table 106.20 and figure 2). Elementary and secondary schools spent 57 percent of this total ($832 billion), and degree-granting postsecondary institutions spent the remaining 43 percent ($620 billion). After adjustment for inflation, total expenditures of all educational institutions rose by an estimated 13 percent between 2008–09 and 2018–19. Inflation-adjusted expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools increased by an estimated 7 percent during this period, while expenditures of degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by an estimated 22 percent. In 2018–19, expenditures of educational institutions were an estimated 7.1 percent of the gross domestic product (table 106.10).