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

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


  1. tom wing11 months ago

    Considering that we (the USA) spend more money than the next 10 largest countries and that we are now 18th in education, it is time that we look into a new structure of education. The current governmental – union run educational process is a total failure , to say the least. We must run thousands more of schools outside of the normal governmental schools. Charter schools are one of those answers, We must learn to say “no mas” to programs that are a total failure. Take a look at the numbers. They don;t lie.

  2. Faylinn Byrne1 year ago

    I just graduated from college and people have always told us that we are way behind other countries. That is why I find it so surprising that we outperform our grandparents. For some reason, though, I thought that during the time of my grandparents that education was really good here in the United States. They were born in the 1940’s and went to college in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. During that time, how did we compare to other countries? I am just curious to know whether or not the rest of the world has progressed while we have not.…

  3. Isabel Novak2 years ago

    As an educator in one of our large American suburban public high schools, I find that students have difficulty verbalizing their ideas, in English or any other language, regardless of race or background. Writing those ideas in a cohesive and comprehensible way is even more of a challenge for many students.

    What does verbalization and writing have to do with math and science? Everything. Once students can describe, through verbalization and written description, the reasoning behind their findings, they will have a much better understanding of the subject matter.

    Where does such does such verbal and written instruction begin? In the language classrooms.

  4. Nathan2 years ago

    Degrees and diplomas are one thing: true education and knowledge is another – but I don’t expect anyone with Pew to understand the difference. Today’s average Millennial may not have dropped out, but they don’t need to: and the quality of college (residential/traditional or on-line) is declining as we speak. A college graduate of 2012-14 has less real learning than a high school graduate of 1950 or 1960 – as far as ability to read, write, reason, and yes, even research. There are, thankfully, exceptions to this, but they cannot carry the load in the future, even with our modern technology. I deal with a wide range of various cohorts in their teens, twenties, and thirties, from various economic “classes” and “races” and backgrounds, and overall, the quality of work and skill and knowledge just is abysmal.

    1. Jason Adam Kelley2 years ago

      Although some specific facts support your statements, when the entire population is looked at the only segment which maintains their earnings at a rate better than inflation are people with advanced degrees.

    2. P. Marshall2 years ago

      Oh please! What’s the basis for this comparison between the actual knowledge and skills of contemporary students, and those of by-gone eras? The same kinds of disclaimers were made in the 70s, 60s, 50s and so on. If students in the 50s and 60s we so well educated, why didn’t they solve the many social problems (i.e., racism, sexism, income inequalities) of times past? Instead, these well educated folks passed their messes on to subsequent generations.

  5. Mark Bauerlein2 years ago

    Why would Pew select these two stats about racial make-up in public schools as the #1 and #2 facts about students in the United States? The racial fixations are a bit much.

    1. I teach for a living2 years ago

      This seems appropriate to me because one of the most pervasive issues in American education today is equity in how we are educating our children. In the fight for equity, race and class play a large role in education policy and practice across America. While we have made huge strides in improving education for all children, there are still many disparities within our system which stem from issues of inequalities due to class and culture. This research hints at that fact while not necessarily stating it directly.

  6. Mike Kolman2 years ago

    Seems like if a student could pursue a debt free college education for math or science degree the USA could improve its status in these areas. But if we let kids go in debt for degrees in Recreation, communications, hotel management etc. and subsidize that then there is no incentive to improve. We will just keep producing “educated” illiterates. But at least they will be forever grateful the first Tuesday in every November

  7. Jon Herrin2 years ago

    A correction in #5: You say they will be more educated than their grandparents. Actually, they will be more “degreed”…but that does not mean they’ll be more educated. I’m seeing college graduates today…and they aren’t as well ‘educated’ as college graduates of 30 years ago. They can find information faster…but their general knowledge of history, geography and science, and their critical thinking skills–all of these are sorely lacking.

    1. Ron2 years ago

      I agree. You can buy a college degree today even a PhD with no substance. Mail Order degrees are available at all level of higher education

    2. ryan marv2 years ago

      Sadly, very true, I’m for example quitting physics bsc after 3 years because inflexibility of the system and poor, obsolete quality of teaching made me crawl up on the ceiling way too many times. Current higher (and lower too) education in most places is not in symbioses with the students’ curiosity, creativity, productivity, financial situation, career goals and in general modern days’ informational age.

    3. Alicia Ayer2 years ago

      I agree. Longitudinal studies of student achievement in the U.S. would be welcome.

  8. Ron Colarusso2 years ago

    We sure do out perform the third world countries in Math and Science! It would be nice to see distributions with both mean and median.

  9. Joel Frese2 years ago

    I wish the article didn’t have to use the word “race.” There is no such thing as race in scientific taxonomy. We are all one species, with no subspecies. It is nothing more than a social construct and quite useless.

    1. Maggie Peterson2 years ago

      Schools, parenting, education, even identity – all social constructs. Why shouldn’t we consider social constructs? Especially those that play such a powerful role in our lives and relationships.

    2. Mac Brown2 years ago

      I agree 100% WITH JOEL

    3. ryan marv2 years ago

      Disagree, it is very informative to see how certain minority groups, consisting of particular races as their backbone, perform. – yes there are races under human species, that’s how the term “race” works, just like how there is Border Collie race among the dog species –

    4. Mike Kolman2 years ago

      Yes but then what would sociologists politicians and whiners have to study and pontificate about

  10. Michal Nancy Karni2 years ago

    Millennials are on track to be the most educated generation in history ??
    they may have the paper but most of them can’t think straight much less support an arguement.
    None I have met have been able to explain to me why they hold the opinions they do nor were they able to explain what their value system was or what it was based on. They acutely didn’t understand what I wanted to know in many cases. This a generation that “feels” instead of thinks.

    1. Joel Frese2 years ago

      I’m going to completely disagree with that. The most intelligent conversations I have in my own life are typically with millennials. They are smart and have a higher ethos. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they can’t be bribed or bought. They can’t be tricked into supporting these stupid wars. When they learn about our grandparents wars, they simply can’t believe that anybody could have such horrible values and disrespect for human life and suffering. My only complaint is that they don’t vote! If they did, we would all have nice things.

      1. Judy2 years ago

        You just described what is wrong with the millennials. They have been brainwashed by the current educational system and political correctness. They need to study history and government to learn why we need to prevent our country from becoming a dictatorship. The reality of mankind is that someone always wants to be leader and dominate others, enforcing his ideas on mankind.

    2. Franky2 years ago

      Geez, someone is a bitter Boomer.

    3. Conner2 years ago

      Great point. Let’s group an entire generation together because of your anecdotal interactions.

    4. G.Z.2 years ago

      Your comment is anecdotal and does not validly support what is a data-driven study. And, a society that thinks and feels is a better-balanced society.

    5. Ron2 years ago

      We have a couple generations that don’t know how to think and question. They have been taught to memorize and pass tests but not think and question