America Heads Back to School

School Classroom

While some of us are still holding on to the waning days of summer, others are getting prepared to start another school year - 76 million of us, in fact.

For their daily 'Profile America,' the U.S. Census Bureau has released statistics on the part of the population heading back to school. From preschool to college, an estimated 76 million Americans will return to the classroom this fall. That's over 25% of the U.S. population over the age of 3. In addition, students will be joined by thousands of teachers and administrative school workers.

College Campus

Higher Education, Higher Earnings

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 19.1 million of those students will be enrolled in college and universities across the country. That's up over five million from two decades ago, when 13.8 million students were enrolled in American postsecondary schools. Of those students, 3.3 million are expected to receive college diplomas during the 2010-2011 school year. Coincidentally, the Bureau projects that the same number of high school diplomas will be handed out this year.

With many of these students going straight to college, and increasing numbers of adults going back to school, there's no end in sight to the crowding of our colleges and universities. In terms of educational attainment, this is great news. In terms of strained state budgets for higher education, well - we're going to have to find a way to pay for all these students.

The Census Bureau's projections are based primarily on data collected during the 2008 American Community Survey (ACS). Here's a few other interesting facts from the Census Bureau about the college-going population that year:

  • 49% of all American 18- and 19-year olds were enrolled in college in 2008.
  • 16% of all college students in 2008 were over the age of 35. Individuals in this age bracket also made up 36% of the full-time student population.
  • 64% of all undergrads in 2008 were enrolled in 4-year colleges or universities. Of that group, 83% attended school full-time.
  • 55% of all college students in 2008 were female.

College Costs

Back in 2007, the Bureau shows that there were 4, 352 institutions of higher education in the U.S. And, as we already know well, the costs of college are rising: The average cost of tuition, room and board was $14,915 for in-state students at 4-year public college and universities during the 2007-2008 school year. Students at private schools fare much worse: Average costs were $40,640 in 2007-2008 at 4-year private institutions. Both figures are more than double the equivalent cost estimates two decades ago in 1990.

But the Census Bureau also reminds us that this investment pays off. In 2008, the average salary for adult workers over age 18 with a bachelor's degree was $58,613. Individuals with an advanced degree earned an average salary of $83,144 that year. By comparison, the average adult with just a high school diploma earned $31,283 in 2008, and the average adult without even a secondary diploma earned $21,023.

While the green movement has driven environmental science and sustainability studies up in popularity, students seeking to maximize their earning potential may want to stick with oil: The Bureau found that the average starting salary offered to bachelor's degree candidates in petroleum engineering in 2008 was $75,621, among the highest in any field. The lowest? Those majoring in the social sciences, who were offered an average of $39,476. Still, that's above the average salary for workers without a bachelor's degree at any level. These, as the Census Bureau so succinctly puts it, are 'the rewards of staying in school.'

Elementary Students

The K-12 Pipeline

Of course, before they get to college, students must make their way from kindergarten through high school graduation. The NCES projects that 56 million young Americans will be enrolled in elementary and secondary schools this fall, and an estimated 11% of them will attend private schools.

There are, in fact, many options for families looking for an alternative to the public school system. During the 2006-2007 school year, there were 28,218 private schools and 3,970 charter schools in the U.S. (charter schools enrolled 1.2 million students that year, a small but growing portion of the population). Of course, most students still attend public schools - in 2006-2007, there were 98,793 of them across the country.

Other fun facts from the Census Bureau about American school kids include:

  • Nearly 80% of 12-17 year olds were academically on-track in 2006, up 8 percentage points from 1998. 'Academically on-track' is defined as simply being enrolled at or above your age-appropriate grade level.
  • Students are becoming more engaged in school: In 2006, 52% of 12-17 year olds were rated as 'highly engaged,' up 5 percentage points from 1998. Among 6-11 year olds, there was a slightly smaller increase was from 56 to 59 percent.
  • High levels of student engagement might explain the delightfully surprising fact that two-thirds of American parents report that their children often like going to school.
  • Students are getting more active too. Forty-one percent of 6-17 year olds participated in sports in 2006, up from 34% in 1998. Sports were the most popular extracurricular activity.
  • America is still a melting pot: In October 2008, 22% of students had at least one foreign-born parent, and 5% of the students themselves were born outside the U.S.
  • In 2008, the government spent an average of $10,259 on each student across the country. New York state spent the most per student ($17,173) and Utah spent the least ($5,765).
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