U.S. Educational Attainment 1940 - 2017

Week 7 Dataset and Historical Background

Posted by David Velleca on April 19, 2018

Historical Background

As long as I can remember, the expectation was that I was going to graduate high school and go to college. This was not only my parent's expectation, but also my own. However, this has not always been the case, but this does not mean that education has not been valued in the United States.

The first schools were established shortly after the founding of the English Colonies in America. The first public school, the Boston Latin School, is still open today, and by that virtue is the oldest public school in the U.S. Higher education was also valued, and Harvard (1636), the University of Pennsylvania (1640) and The College of William and Mary (1693, becoming a university in 1779) all claim to be the first university in America.

In the early years of American education, primary schools focused on instilling morals through teaching the virtues of family, religion and community. However, by the mid 19th century, the focus was on academics. That didn't mean that education was available to all. The barriers of gender and race were not eliminated until well into the 20th century.

Additionally, the same expectation that I had to graduate from college, was definitely not the norm. Even at the turn of the 20th century, only 31 states mandated attendance for children aged 8-14. By 1918, all states required students to complete elementary school.

Our data this week looks at educational attainment, or the number of school years completed, from 1940 to 2017. The data encompasses an interesting time in the history of education in America - from the G.I. Bill providing for veterans to attend college after World War II and Vietnam, to desegregation in the 1960s and 70's, to the impact of the economic crisis of 2008 on student loans. What can you visualize with the data?

Data Notes

There are a few notes on the data this week:

  • Values are in thousands;
  • Until 1959, the 'total' figure includes persons who did not report on their number of years of schooling completed; and
  • In 1992, the Census questions changed, influencing the data as follows:
    • 'High School Graduate' falls into the 'High School - 4 Years' category, meaning that regardless of the number of years required to graduate (early graduates), graduates are counted as completing 4 years;
    • Those completing 'Some College' or their Associates Degree fall into the 'College 1-3 Years' bucket;
    • The 'College 4 Years' bucket includes those attaining their Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorate or Professional degrees; and
    • Because of these changes, the median years completed is unavailable.

Data Source

This week's data source comes from the United States Census Bureau. We used Table A-1, "Years of school completed by people 25 years and over by age and sex."

Information for this historical background comes from the American Board.

The splash image for this post comes from my alma mater, The University of Missouri. While not staking a claim to the oldest university in America, it does hold the title of the oldest land grant university west of the Mississippi River. The picture depicts Academic Hall prior to the 1892 fire that destroyed all of the building but the six ionic columns that featured at the Hall's entrance. After the fire, the board and community rallied to have the columns remain on campus. Today, they are one of the best known symbols of the University, featuring prominently during televised sporting events and in SEC commercials. Go Tigers!