August 10, 2015

5 facts about America’s students

In a few weeks, America’s roughly 53.5 million K-12 students will head to the classroom. Trading in swimming pools and summer jobs for math problems and history homework, these students will hit the books at one of more than 129,200 schools across the country, including about 5,700 charter schools and 30,900 private schools.

Pew Research Center has found today’s American students as a whole to be more diverse and on track to be better educated than their parents and grandparents. Here are five key findings about these students:

1As a whole, America’s K-12 students are more racially diverse than ever. The U.S. Department of Education projected that minorities would outnumber whites at public schools by fall 2014, due largely to fast growth in the number of Hispanic and Asian school-age children born in the U.S. Since 2000 there has also been a large increase in the number of states where at least one-in-five public school kindergartners are Latino.

These changes reflect a broader shift toward a majority-minority youth population. Young Americans are far more likely than older Americans to be racial or ethnic minorities. Data from the Census Bureau show that half of Americans younger than 5 were minorities in 2013, compared with just 17% of those ages 85 or older.

Public Schools in the United States Projected to be Majority-Minority in 2014

2Enrollment at Majority-Minority SchoolsYet, even while school-age children as a whole have become more diverse, most white students still attend largely white schools. Just 17.1% of whites attended a school where minorities made up at least half of all students in 2012. Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of Hispanics and blacks (and six-in-ten Asians) attended these majority-minority schools. But many of these minority students are going to school with classmates of their same race or ethnicity. For the 2011-12 school year, the average Latino student attended a school that was 56.8% Latino, and the average black student attended a school that was 48.8% black, according to a recent report from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. (The average white student attended a school that was 72.5% white.)

3Hispanic, Black High School Dropout Rate Reach Record LowsStudents today are more likely to stay in school. As of 2013, America’s high school dropout rate had reached a record low: Just 7% of 18- to 24-year-olds that year had dropped out of high school, down from 12% in 2000. The decline can be attributed to falling numbers of black and Hispanic dropouts. The dropout rate among black students fell by nearly half, from 15% in 2000 to 8% in 2013, while the rate for Hispanics tumbled to a record low of 14%, down from 32% in 2000. Yet while a growing share of Hispanic youths are finishing high school and attending college, Hispanics still lag behind whites in obtaining four-year college degrees.

4America’s students have improved in math and science over the past 20 years – but remain behind students in many other industrialized nations. The United States ranks 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science, according to a cross-national test known as PISA. Although the U.S. spent more per pupil than many countries in 2012 ($115,000), its students performed the same in math as those in Slovakia, which spent $53,000 per student.

U.S. Stands in Middle of Pack on Science, Math Scores

Americans are critical of the quality of the nation’s K-12 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instruction: Only 29% believe U.S. STEM education is above average or the best in the world, and 29% say it is below average. At the same time, Americans believe math and science skills are less critical to success than communication and reading skills: 90% say communication is one of the most important skills for American children to get ahead, while 79% name math and only 58% name science.

5Millennials on Track to be the Most Educated Generation to DateWhile they may lag their peers in other nations, American students are outperforming one group: their grandparents. In fact, Millennials are on track to be the most educated generation in history compared with older generations when they were the same age. This is partly due to increases in higher education among minorities, as well as to educational gains for women. Millennial women are nearly four times as likely as women in the Silent generation to have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Educational Attainment, Teens and Youth, Education, Race and Ethnicity

  1. is a former editorial intern at Pew Research Center.