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To the Editors of American Demographics:

Politicians continue to attack our K-12 system of public education, proffering some vague notion that if we could just have teachers and schools as good as those we had when we were growing up, everything would be better. I argue that things weren't better 40 or 50 years ago. In fact, I believe they were worse. However, I'm unable to locate comparable education statistics from the 1950s or 1960s that could be measured against today's figures. Are statistics regarding high school completion, college attendance, teen drug usage, teen pregnancy and the like available for such a comparison?

Rick DeGraw

Maricopa Community Colleges

Tempe, Ariz.

Dear Rick:

There are actually quite a few surveys, dating as far back as the mid-1800s, that continually collect data on school-age children and education. Of course, there are certain aspects of the lives of young Americans, including their use of alcohol and drugs, for which continuous data collection has only recently begun.

Some of the oldest studies on education can be found in the annually published Digest of Education Statistics, from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). According to the latest edition of the digest, released in February 2002, there were 46.5 million students enrolled in the nation's public and private elementary and secondary schools as of the 1998-1999 school year (the latest complete year for which data is available), or 91 percent of those between the ages of 5 and 17 — the highest percent of any year on record. A half century earlier (1949-1950), the number of enrolled pupils was just 25.1 million, or 83 percent of all young people. The data reveals that the student-to-teacher ratio today is markedly lower than it was “back then.� In 1949, there were 26.1 students per instructional staff member (which, in addition to teachers, includes principals, supervisors, librarians, etc.); by the fall of 1998, there were 12.6 students per staff member.

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Americans are not just going to school in record numbers, they're also staying there longer. In 1940, barely a quarter of Americans age 25 and older (18 million adults) had completed high school. By 1960, 41 percent of the population (41 million adults) had at least a high school diploma. Today, 84 percent of all adults age 25 and older (147 million individuals) have completed secondary school, and many of them have gone on to college: The percentage of Americans with a four-year college degree is now 26 percent, up from just 5 percent in 1940.

As educational attainment rises, so do employers' demands from the work force. In 1973, for example, only 28 percent of prime-age workers (defined as those between the ages of 30 and 59) had attended a postsecondary institution, according to a report published by the U.S. Department of Education. By 2000, 59 percent of prime-age workers said they had continued their education after completing high school. Money is also drawing more Americans to get a college degree. In 2000, men and women with a bachelor's degree earned 79 percent more each year than their peers who had just a high school diploma.

Women these days are freer to continue their education without having to care for a baby. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were just 45.9 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in 2001, the lowest number ever recorded. In fact, the teen birth rate has been falling fairly consistently since the height of the Baby Boom years in 1957, when there was a record 96.3 births for every 1,000 teenage girls.

Drug use, however, has not seen a similar decline. According to a study on drug use of high school seniors, conducted each year since 1975 by the University of Michigan, 55 percent of students in the class of 1975 had tried at least one illicit drug. By 2002, 53 percent of students had tried drugs — hardly a significant reduction. Drug use is actually higher among high school seniors today than it was during the late '80s and early '90s.

Another problem that has captured the attention of parents and educators more recently is school violence. While hard numbers on the topic can be found dating back only to the early '90s, it appears that the situation is already improving. According to “Indicators of School Crime and Safety,� a report published by the NCES and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of nonfatal crimes against students ages 12 through 18, occurring either at school or on the way to or from school, fell to 1.9 million in 2000 (the latest year for which data is available) from a high of 3.8 million reported in 1994. That's a 50 percent reduction.

Although you didn't ask about suicide information specifically, you might find it sobering that the rate at which young people (ages 15 to 24) take their own lives has risen significantly over the years. In 1950, the NCES reported that there were 4.5 suicides for every 100,000 individuals ages 15 to 24; in 2000, there were 10.4 suicides. Among certain subgroups, the rate is even higher. For white males between 15 and 24 years of age, for instance, the suicide rate today is 18.2, up from 6.6 in 1950. That's something to think about when celebrating advances in other areas.


In Gallup polls sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa that have been conducted every year since 1970, Americans continue to cite “lack of discipline� and “lack of financial support� as major problems facing the nation's public schools. In more recent years, concerns about overcrowding and school violence have cropped up, while concerns over racial segregation have gone by the wayside.


1970 1985 2002
Lack of discipline 18% 25% 17%
Lack of financial support 17% 9% 23%
Fighting/violence/gangs — — 9%
Use of drugs 11% 18% 13%
Large schools/overcrowding — 5% 17%
Getting good teachers 12% 10% 8%
Integration/segregation/racial discrimination 17% 4% —
— Not identified as a major problem
Source: Gallup/Phi Beta Kappa


The percent of Americans with a college diploma has increased dramatically during the past half century, especially among black men and women.


1950 1962* 1970 1980 1990 2000
All adults 6% 9% 11% 17% 21% 26%
Whites NA 10% 12% 18% 22% 28%
Men NA 12% 15% 22% 25% 31%
Women NA 7% 9% 14% 19% 26%
Blacks 2% 4% 5% 8% 11% 17%
Men 2% 4% 5% 8% 12% 16%
Women 2% 4% 4% 8% 11% 17%
Hispanics NA NA NA 8% 9% 11%
Men NA NA NA 10% 10% 11%
Women NA NA NA 6% 9% 11%
*Detailed data for 1960 is not available; data from 1962 has been used instead.
NA: Data not available
Source: U.S. Census Bureau


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