U.S. Education by the Numbers

Today, more students are enrolled in school than ever before. And the trend is accelerating. In fact, all of the population numbers in this article have increased by about ten percent in the past ten years; in the next decade, the acceleration will increase. For the moment, let’s focus on the U.S., and, in time, in future articles, the view will expand. Note that much of his information comes from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Before we dig deeply, I suppose it’s interesting to note that there are about 99,000 public schools (including just over 5,000 charter schools), plus more than 33,000 private schools.

640px-College_graduate_studentsThis year, there are slightly fewer than 50 million public school students, including about 15 million high school students in public school. Add another 5 million students in private school, including over 1 million in private high schools.

Each year, about 4 million students start high school. (Actually, the number is about 3.7-4.0 million). Remember that number: it’s the basis for some arithmetic below.

There are many ways to calculate high school graduation rates, and the Federal government has been improving the reliability, accuracy and precision of these metrics. Distribution is uneven: students in some ethnic groups, who live in some states or cities or districts, may fare better or worse (as poorly as 1 in 2 graduating, for example).

In our simple (and, perhaps, simplistic) calculation, it would be fair to assume that about 4 million students start high school and about 3 million finish high school.

About 2 in 3 males, and about 3 in 4 female, enroll in college.

Each year, just under 2 million bachelor’s degrees, plus just short of a million earn an associates degree. And although not everybody earns a bachelor’s degree in four years or an associate’s degree in two years, on average, the vast majority of people who graduate high school–that is, about 3 in 4 of the people who started ninth grade–earn a college degree.

What’s more, nearly one million advanced degrees (masters, doctorate) are awarded every year. It’s fair to assume more than a half million people earn these degrees each year–or about 1 in 6 f the people who graduated high school.

Taking this into the workplace, in 2010, nearly 3 out of 4 college graduates were employed, in comparison with just over 1 in 2 people with only a high school diploma. On average, those college graduates also earned more money: over $45,000 for the college graduates compared with just under $30,000 for high school graduates without a college degree.

All of this sounds terrific, but I wonder whether the numbers are correct.

Last spring, The Atlantic published an article that placed just over 40 percent of 18-24 year olds in college, and offered a graduate rate (within a generous six years) of just 56 percent. If I understand this story correctly: roughly 20 percent of 24 year olds earn a college degree. The Atlantic story was inspired by a report prepared by Reuters.

So why does the National Center for Education Statistics report 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees per year? (I may not be comparing [teacher’s] apples to apples, but this discrepancy seems to be quite large.)

The purpose of this article is not to challenge these sources, but instead, to try to get a fix on the actual numbers, and the state of U.S. education today. Why? If 3 in 4 people are indeed graduating high school, then we’re working on the right problem, especially if the vast majority of high school grads finish college and earn a good wage. However, if only 3 in 4 high school grads are attending college, and only 1 in 2 of them are actually finishing college, that only 1 in 4 Americans are college graduates.

Gee, those numbers seem wrong to me–the number of college graduates is probably over fifty percent–so why don’t the numbers add up?


I’m investing $165K in the child who lives next door

In the U.S., 76 million students are currently enrolled in pre-K through graduate school. About 55 million students are in pre-K, elementary, junior high, or high school, and about 20 million more are enrolled in community colleges, four year colleges and universities, and graduate programs.

The cost of a pre-K through 12th grade education: $650 billion for 55 million people, or about $12,000 per student per year. Figure a total investment of $165,000 per student for the entire pre-K through high school run. In fact, nearly nine out of ten adults finish high school (most by 18, some later).

Add four years of college, and the total per-student investment exceeds $200,000. As it turns out, that’s the investment made by or for about one in three American adults.

Here’s another way to think about it. You’re in a room with ten people. One of those people never finished high school. Six finished high school, but not college. Three finished college. This is America:

“Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of the adult population 25 years of age and over who had completed high school rose from 84 to 87%, and the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree increased from 26% to 30%.”

Researchers argue about whether the precise high school drop-out rate is closer to 12% or 33%–a very wide range–but 25% is comfortably in-between, hence the “one-in-four” assumption. For minority students, the drop-out rate is somewhere between 50% (yikes!) and 85%, so one-in-three seems to be a reasonable starting point for any discussion. This is an enormous problem. High school drop-outs earn far less than graduates, and often disrupt families and communities because their options are comparatively narrow.

Is there reason to be concerned about one in three Americans graduating from college?

As part of its College Completion agenda, The College Board reports the number of 25-34 year olds with an Associate Degree, or better, in various countries. The results are a bit surprising: there are four countries with over 50% rates, Korea, Canada, the Russian Federation (!), and Japan. There are eleven countries with rates higher than the U.S.; at about 41%, we’re comparable with Israel, France, and Sweden, and (again surprising), far ahead of Germany (24%). Expand the view from 25-35 to 25-64, and the results change a lot: the U.S. is fourth on the list with only Russia above the 50% mark–so it’s reasonable to assume that Korea, Canada and Japan have made great strides during the past few years, but the U.S. has not. Dig deeper and the reasons become clear: the white population seems to be twice as likely to hold a degree than the Latino population, which is growing quickly in the U.S.

Dig deeper and the situation becomes even more complicated.

So, what have I learned in my late night exploration of educational statistics?

1. Assuming our economy can provide the necessary jobs, we should probably set a 50% goal for college graduation. Assuming current trends continue, we will reach that figure within the next 10 or 20 years.

2. Unlike others, I don’t feel that the U.S. must lead in every category. We’re within a reasonable range among comparable nations, and that’s a good starting point.

3. The high school drop-out rate is alarming, both for the individuals involved and for the development of our society. The reasons why we don’t achieve a high school graduation rate are many: inadequate schools, old-fashioned ideas, insufficient budgets, inadequate family and community support for families, poor preparation in key skills necessary for high school success, peer pressure involving gangs, guns, violence, drugs, limited options, and so on.

No, this post does not end with a solid solution or even a rational recommendation. I’m just taking notes on stats that seem important, and devoting part of my day to understanding the bounds of the issue. I hope you will, too.


High school rates: http://voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/930

History of pre-K through grade 12 enrollment, plus higher education: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_003.asp?referrer=report

Lots more good stuff here (the source of the quote, too): http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/

As always, Wikipedia offers abundant information, this time with lots of charts and graphs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Educational_attainment_in_the_United_States

College Board stats from: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2010

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