In 1902 governments in the United States spent one percent of GDP on education programs. In the early 21st century, governments spend about six percent of GDP on education programs.
Government education spending in the first half of the 20th century was almost exclusively for childhood education, K thru 12. In 1950, spending was 2 percent on K-12 and 0.37 percent of GDP on higher education. But then the higher education share began to grow. At the peak of education spending in the 1970s, K-12 spending was 3.9 percent of GDP and higher education was 1.44 percent of GDP. Thus K-12 spending had doubled as a percent of GDP and higher education spending had just about quadrupled in 25 years.
Since the 1970s higher education has increased its share a little. K-12 education spending ended up at about 4 percent in the 2000s and higher education spending rose to 1.6 to 1.7 percent of GDP.
In the Great Recession K-12 education popped up to 4.4 percent GDP before declining below 4 percent GDP. Higher education spending is expected to increase to 1.84 percent GDP by 2015.
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Detailed table of spending data sources here.
Federal spending data begins in 1792.
State and local spending data begins in 1890.
State and local spending data for individual states begins in 1957.
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Source: CBO Long-Term Budget Outlook .