State governments set overall educational standards, often mandate standardized tests for K–12 public school systems and supervise, usually through a board of regents, state colleges, and universities. The bulk of the $1.3 trillion in funding comes from state and local governments, with federal funding accounting for only about $200 billion. Private schools are generally free to determine their own curriculum and staffing policies, with voluntary accreditation available through independent regional accreditation authorities, although some state regulation can apply.
In 2013, about 87% of school-age children (those below higher education) attended state funded public schools, about 10% attended tuition- and foundation-funded private schools, and roughly 3% were home-schooled.
By state law, education is compulsory over an age range starting between five and eight and ending somewhere between ages sixteen and eighteen, depending on the state. This requirement can be satisfied in public schools, state-certified private schools, or an approved home school program. In most schools, compulsory education is divided into three levels: elementary school, middle or junior high school, and high school. Children are usually divided by age groups into grades, ranging from kindergarten (5–6-year olds) and first grade for the youngest children, up to twelfth grade (17–18 years old) as the final year of high school.
There are also a large number and wide variety of publicly and privately administered institutions of higher education throughout the country. Post-secondary education, divided into college, as the first tertiary degree, and graduate school, is described in a separate section below. Higher education includes elite private colleges like Harvard University, Stanford University, MIT, and Caltech, large state flagship universities, private liberal arts schools, historically-black colleges and universities, community colleges, and for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. College enrollment rates in the United States have increased over the long term. At the same time, student loan debt has also risen to $1.5 trillion. According to a report published by the U.S. News & World Report, of the top ten colleges and universities in the world, eight are American (the other two are Oxford and Cambridge, in the United Kingdom).
The United States spends more per student on education than any other country. In 2014, the Pearson/Economist Intelligence Unit rated US education as 14th best in the world. The Programme for International Student Assessment coordinated by the OECD currently ranks the overall knowledge and skills of American 15-year-olds as 31st in the world in reading literacy, mathematics, and science with the average American student scoring 487.7, compared with the OECD average of 493. In 2014, the country spent 6.2 percent of its GDP on all levels of education – 1.0 percentage points above the OECD average of 5.2 percent. In 2017, 46.4 percent of Americans aged 25 to 64 attained some form of post-secondary education. 48 percent of Americans aged 25 to 34 attained some form of tertiary education, about 4 percent above the OECD average of 44 percent. 35 percent of Americans aged 25 and over have achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher. The United States ranks 3rd from the bottom among OECD nations in terms of its poverty gap, and 4th from the bottom in terms of poverty rate. Jonathan Kozol has described these inequalities in K–12 education in Savage Inequalities and The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.