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Report Number WE-11
Component ID: #ti1388216197

Introduction

We Americans are known for many achievements — our standard of living, our discoveries and inventions, and our ability to organize and overcome problems. We tend to think of these achievements in terms of material things — things like the space shuttle, microwave ovens, and super computers. But as important as these are, they are only byproducts of America’s greatest achievement — the ever increasing level of education of its population.

The first question about education — “Can you read and write?” — was asked in the 1840 census. At that time, more than 1 in every 5 persons were illiterate. The general illiteracy rate decreased steadily over the years. Questions on illiteracy were dropped in the 1940 census.

Since the Census Bureau first began measuring educational attainment as completed schooling in the 1940 census, the educational level of the population has risen steadily. In the 50 years since then, the United States has made great strides in education. Not only are more of us going to school, but we are also starting earlier and staying longer. In 1990, about 75 percent of the adult population had received at least a high school diploma compared with about 25 percent in 1940.

In the 1990 census, we measured the completion of specific college degrees (for example, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees) for the first time. These data show that over 20 million Americans held a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of schooling, and another 11 million have a professional or graduate degree.

The advantages of a good education are many, but they boil down to one main point: having a good education gives a person the opportunity to make the most of his or her talents. The quality of life in America’s future is inseparably bound to the quality — and quantity — of education obtained by each of its members.

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