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Chapter 13: Education and Religion

13.3 Education in the United States

Education in the United States is a massive social institution involving millions of people and billions of dollars. In 2018, over 76 million people, almost one-fourth of the U.S. population, attend school at all levels. This number includes over 35.6 million in grades pre-K through 8, 15.1 million in high school, and 19.9 million in college (including graduate and professional school). They attend some 133,000 elementary and secondary schools, with $654 billion worth of funding for the 2018-19 school year (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Education is a huge social institution.

Correlates of Educational Attainment

About 70% of U.S. high school graduates enroll in college the following fall. This is a very high figure by international standards, as college in many other industrial nations is reserved for the very small percentage of the population who pass rigorous entrance exams, whereas higher education in the United States is open to all who graduate high school. Even though that is true, our chances of achieving a college degree are greatly determined at birth, as social class and race/ethnicity have a significant effect on access to and completion of college. For instance, Figure 13.2 “Race, Ethnicity, and High School Dropout Rate, 16–24-Year-Olds, 1990-2016” shows how race and ethnicity affect high school dropout rates. The dropout rate is highest for Latinos and lowest for whites. However, note the decline in dropout rates over time for all groups, especially Hispanic/Latino students, whose dropout rate in 2016 was roughly ¼ of the rate it was in 1990.

Figure 13.2 Race, Ethnicity, and High School Dropout Rate, 16–24-Year-Olds, 1990-2016

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Source: Data from “Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_219.70.asp.

Similarly, one way of illustrating how income and race/ethnicity affect the chances of achieving a college degree is to examine the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college following graduation and who ultimately complete a college degree.

As Figure 13.3 “Family Income and Percentage of High School Graduates Who Attend College Immediately After Graduation, 2016” shows, students from families in the highest income bracket are more likely than those in the lower brackets to attend college. It’s important to note, however, that the gap in college enrollment rates between high- and low-income students has narrowed in recent decades, from a gap of 30 percentage points in 2000 to only 16 percentage points in 2016 (The Condition of Education, 2018).

Figure 13.3 Family Income and Percentage of High School Graduates Who Attend College Immediately After Graduation, 2016

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Source: Data from McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Wang, X., Zhang, J., Wang, K., Rathbun, A., Barmer, A., Forrest Cataldi, E., and Bullock Mann, F. (2018). The condition of education 2018 (NCES 2018-144). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

For race-ethnicity, it is useful to examine the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college in order to compare across groups. As shown below, there is variation in college attendance within the traditionally-aged college population by race-ethnicity. With fifty-eight percent of 18- to 24-year-old enrolled in college, Asian Americans by far have the highest rate of college attendance. In comparison, American Indians/Alaskan Natives and Pacific Islanders have the lowest rates of college enrollment, at 19 and 21%, respectively. Each racial-ethnic group experiences fluctuation in college enrollment over time, however, one group that has shown consistent increases in enrollment rates from 2000 to 2016 are Hispanic Americans, who have increased enrollment from 22% to 39% (The Condition of Education, 2018).

Figure 13.4 Enrollment Rates of 18- to 24-year-olds in college, by race-ethnicity, 2016

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*AIAN represents American Indian and Alaska Natives.

Source: Data from McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Wang, X., Zhang, J., Wang, K., Rathbun, A., Barmer, A., Forrest Cataldi, E., and Bullock Mann, F. (2018). The condition of education 2018 (NCES 2018-144). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Data on retention of students once enrolled in college show that currently about 60% of students who begin seeking a bachelor’s degree complete that degree within 6 years (The Condition of Education, 2018). Additionally, rates of degree attainment varies by race-ethnicity, as shown below in Figure 13.5 ”Race, Ethnicity, and Percentage of Persons 25 or Older With a Bachelor’s or Higher Degree, 2017.” As demonstrated, Asian Americans have the highest rate of degree attainment, while Latinos, American Indian/Alaska Natives and African Americans are least likely to have a degree.

Figure 13.5 Race, Ethnicity, and Percentage of Persons 25 or Older with a Bachelor’s or Higher Degree, 2017

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*AIAN represents American Indian and Alaska Natives.

Source: “Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics,nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_104.10.asp.

Why do African Americans, Latinos and American Indian/Alaska Natives have lower educational attainment? Two factors are commonly cited: (a) the underfunded and otherwise inadequate schools that children in these groups often attend and (b) the higher poverty of their families and lower education of their parents that often leave them ill-prepared for school even before they enter kindergarten (Ballantine & Hammack, 2009; Yeung & Pfeiffer, 2009).

Does gender affect educational attainment? The answer is yes, but perhaps not in the way you expect. In 2017, slightly more women than men hold a bachelor’s degree or higher: 34.6% of women and 33.7% of men. While women were less likely than men in earlier generations to go to college, the reverse is now true. Today, 56% of undergraduates are female.

The Difference Education Makes: Income

Have you ever applied for a job that required a high school degree? Are you going to college in part because you realize you will need a college degree for a higher-paying job? As these questions imply, the United States is a (Collins, 1979). This means at least two things. First, a high school or college degree (or beyond) indicates that a person has acquired the needed knowledge and skills for various jobs. Second, a degree at some level is a requirement for most jobs. As you know full well, a college degree today is a virtual requirement for a decent-paying job. Over the years the ante has been upped considerably, as in earlier generations a high school degree, if even that, was all that was needed, if only because so few people graduated from high school to begin with (see Figure 13.6 “Percentage of Population 25 or Older With at Least a High School Degree, 1910–2017”). With so many people graduating from high school today, a high school degree is not worth as much. Then, too, today’s technological and knowledge-based postindustrial society increasingly requires skills and knowledge that only a college education brings.

Figure 13.6 Percentage of Population 25 or Older With at Least a High School Degree, 1910–2017

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Source: Data from “Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_104.10.asp.

A credential society also means that people with more educational attainment have higher rates of employment and achieve higher incomes. For instance, in 2017, for people aged 25 – 64 years old, only 55.6% of those with less than a high school degree were employed, while those with a high school diploma had an employment rate of 68.4%. Comparing this data to those who had some college but did not attain a bachelor’s degree and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, whose rates of employment were 75.3% and while 83.5%, it is clear that educational attainment plays a crucial role in job opportunity (Digest of Education Statistics, 2017).

Similarly, annual earnings are indeed much higher for people with more education (see Figure 13.7 “Median Annual Earnings of Persons 25-Years Old and Over by Level of Educational Attainment, 2016”). As earlier chapters indicated, gender and race/ethnicity affect the payoff we get from our education, but education itself still makes a huge difference for our incomes.

Figure 13.7 Median Annual Earnings of Persons 25-years Old and Over by Level of Educational Attainment, 2016

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Source: Data from “Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_104.10.asp.

The Difference Education Makes: Attitudes

Education also makes a difference for our attitudes. Researchers use different strategies to determine this effect. They compare adults with different levels of education; they compare college seniors with first-year college students; and sometimes they even study a group of students when they begin college and again when they are about to graduate. However they do so, they typically find that education leads us to be more tolerant and even approving of nontraditional beliefs and behaviors and less likely to hold various kinds of prejudices (McClelland & Linnander, 2006; Moore & Ovadia, 2006). Racial prejudice and sexism, two types of belief explored in previous chapters, all reduce with education. Education has these effects because the material we learn in classes and the experiences we undergo with greater schooling all teach us new things and challenge traditional ways of thinking and acting.

 

Key Terms

Credential society – a society in which eligibility for work is dependent upon the attainment of a degree or diploma

 

Continue to 13.4 Issues and Problems in Education

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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez, Rudy Hernandez, Aliza Robison, Pamela Smith, and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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