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Education and Culture

In the United States, education, cultural activities, and the communications media exert a tremendous influence on the lives of individuals. Through these means, knowledge and cultural values are generated, transmitted, and preserved from one generation to the next.

In most of the United States, illiteracy has been virtually eliminated. However, census estimates suggest that 2.4 percent of the population over age 25 is functionally illiterate, that is, they are unable to read and write well enough to meet the demands of everyday life. More of the population has received more education than ever before. Among Americans aged 25 and older in 1993, about four-fifths had completed high school, as compared with only about one-fourth as recently as 1940. In 1993 nearly 22 percent of the population had completed four or more years of college. This same trend toward increased accessibility and usage applies to America's cultural institutions, which have continued to thrive despite a troubled economy.


In the United States, education is offered at all levels from prekindergarten to graduate school by both public and private institutions. Elementary and secondary education involves 12 years of schooling, the successful completion of which leads to a high school diploma. Although public education can be defined in various ways, one key concept is the accountability of school officials to the voters. In theory, responsibility for operating the public education system in the United States is local. In fact, much of the local control has been superseded, and state legislation controls financing methods, academic standards, and policy and curriculum guidelines. Because public education is separately developed within each state, variations exist from one state to another. Parallel paths among states have developed, however, in part because public education is also a matter of national interest.

Public elementary and secondary education is supported financially by three levels of governmentlocal, state, and federal. Local school districts often levy property taxes, which are the major source of financing for the public school systems. One of the problems that arises because of the heavy reliance on local property tax is a disparity in the quality of education received by students. Rich communities can afford to pay more per student than poorer communities; consequently, the disparity in wealth affects the quality of education received. Some states have taken measures to level this imbalance by distributing property tax collections to school districts based on the number of students enrolled.

When public education was established in the American colonies in the mid-17th century, it was viewed by many as an instrument that would break down the barriers of social class and prejudice. Public schools were intended for all creeds, classes, and religions. In addition to the development of individuals, public schools were to promote social harmony by equalizing the conditions of the population.

Most students attended private schools, however, until well into the 19th century. Then, in the decades before the American Civil War (1861-1865), a transition took place from private to public school education. This transition was to provide children of all classes with a free education. The idea of free public education did, however, encounter opposition. The nonwhite population, which consisted primarily of blacks, was either totally denied an education or allowed to attend only racially segregated schools.

School Segregation

Before the Civil War, public school segregation was common both in the South and in the North. In every southern state except Kentucky and Maryland, laws existed that forbade the teaching of reading and writing to slaves.

In 1867, after the end of the Civil War, schools for blacks began to be established in various parts of the South. For nearly a century, until 1954, most education facilities in the southern states remained racially segregated by state laws. Not only were schools segregated, but, in schools for blacks, the physical conditions and facilities were poor, transportation to such schools was meager or nonexistent, and expenditures per black pupil fell below those per white pupil.

In the northern states during this same period, most black children also attended separate schools. Sometimes this was the result of state laws; more often it was the result of policy decisions, either officially acknowledged or clandestine. Examples of the latter are gerrymandered school districts and pupil transfer systems. The result, in the South and the North, was a dual system of education for blacks and whites.

In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States declared racial segregation in schools illegal, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Since then progress has been made toward desegregation; however, widespread de facto segregation still exists today in both suburban and urban areas. In the late 1980s more than 60 percent of black and Hispanic American students attended schools where minority group enrollment constituted over 50 percent of the total. In some large cities, either because of residential patterns or because of an intent to segregate schools, entire school districts are still segregated. Some districts have attempted the busing of pupils to help achieve integration, but this has proved generally unpopular and unworkable. Thus, the right to a desegregated education remains more theoretical than real for many children.

Elementary and Secondary Enrollments

In 1993 some 59,680 public elementary and 19,995 public secondary schools were in operation in the United States, in addition to 4826 special-purpose or combined schools. Enrollment in public schools in 1993 totaled about 31 million elementary pupils and about 11.7 million secondary students. In addition, private elementary and secondary schools together enrolled about 4.9 million students in 1991. The largest system of private education in the United States is that of the Roman Catholic church, with some 2.6 million students in 1991. In public schools, the average expenditure per pupil in the United States in 1993 was about $5574, ranging from a low of about $3218 in Utah to a high of about $9712 in New Jersey.

Higher Education

The first American colleges were small and attended by an aristocratic student body. The earliest institutions were established in the United States between the mid-17th and mid-18th centuries: Harvard University (1636), the College of William and Mary (1693), Yale University (1701), the University of Pennsylvania (1740), Princeton University (1746), Columbia University (1754), Brown University (1764), Rutgers University (1771), and Dartmouth College (1769). These private institutions initially prepared students for careers in theology, law, medicine, and teachinga curriculum too narrow for a country experiencing a rapid expansion of its territory, industry, and industrial population.

An important development occurred in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act (see Land-Grant Colleges), which donated public lands to the several states and territories to provide colleges with the resources necessary to teach such branches of learning as agriculture and the mechanical arts. The Morrill Act was designed to promote the liberal and practical education of the new industrial population. Based on the act, each state was granted 12,141 hectares (30,000 acres) of federal land for each member it had in Congress. In addition to creating colleges, the Morrill Act extended education to groups that would benefit from higher education regardless of financial background and greatly accelerated the admission of women to institutions of higher learning. Some of the larger institutions that were established or expanded as a result of the Morrill Act include the University of Arizona (1885), the University of California at Berkeley (1868), the University of Florida (1853), the University of Illinois (1867), Purdue University (1865), the University of Maryland (1807), Michigan State University (1855), Ohio State University (1870), Pennsylvania State University (1855), and the University of Wisconsin (1849).

Higher education, like elementary and secondary education, has historically been racially segregated in the United States. Before 1954 most blacks gained access to higher education only by attending colleges and universities established for blacks, nearly all of which were located in the southern states. With the gradual dissolution of most traditional racial barriers, more and more blacks enrolled in institutions where whites made up the majority of the student body. By 1990 only about 17 percent of all black students were enrolled in the 105 historically black colleges and universities.


A unique feature of higher education in the United States is the device known as accreditation, which includes voluntary self-evaluation by a school and appraisal by a group of its peers. This process operates through nationally recognized accrediting agencies and associations and certain state bodies. These agencies or associations have established educational criteria to evaluate institutions in terms of their own objectives and to ascertain whether programs of educational quality are being maintained. They provide institutions with continued stimulus for improvement, to ensure that accredited status may serve as an authentic index of educational quality.

Costs of Higher Education

The cost of higher education varies by type of institution. Tuition is highest at private four-year institutions, and lowest at public two-year institutions. The private four-year colleges nearly quadrupled their average tuition rates between 1975 and 1990. For private four-year colleges, tuition and fees for the 1992-1993 academic year averaged about $13,043, compared with about $2827 at public four-year colleges. The cost of attending an institution of higher education includes not only tuition and fees, however, but also books and supplies, transportation, personal expenses and, sometimes, room and board. Although tuition and fees generally are substantially lower at public institutions than at private ones, the other student costs are about the same. The average cost for tuition, fees, and room and board for the 1992-1993 academic year at private four-year colleges was about $18,892. At public four-year colleges the average combined cost was about $6449.

Enrollment Trends

In 1992 about 62.1 million people were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education, about 1.1 million more than the number enrolled in 1975.

Nursery school enrollment increased sharply between 1970 and 1992, from about 1.1 million to about 2.9 million children. This rise in nursery school enrollment may have occurred because of the increasingly recognized value of preprimary education as well as the growth in employment outside the home of women with young children. College and university enrollment also increased substantially, from some 8.6 million students in 1970 to 14.5 million in 1992. The increase in enrollment in institutions of higher education was primarily due to the growth in attendance by women. Of the total school enrollment in 1992, whites constituted about 83 percent, blacks about 10 percent, and Hispanic Americans (who may be of any race) about 7 percent.