The 1940 Census: A Window on Utah’s Educational Past

 

Apart from individual data, the 1940 census also gives us an opportunity to view society writ large at that time, and what was atypical of my parents was that they were both high school graduates.

Monday’s release of individual data from the 1940 U.S. Census opened a window to the lives of those who have gone before us. For me, it was the last time I would find records of my parents still living with their parents. In June of the following year, they would be married and nine months after that my father would enlist in the Army.

Two years before the 1940 census, they both graduated from South High School in Salt Lake City (now known as the South City Campus of Salt Lake Community College). You might think their story typical: High school sweethearts who graduated and got married on the eve of World War II. What may surprise you is how unusual one aspect of that story was.

Bailey Gatzert School students salute flag, Seattle, May 18, 1943

Bailey Gatzert School students salute flag/IMLS DCC/CC/flickr

Apart from individual data, the 1940 census also gives us an opportunity to view society writ large at that time, and what was atypical of my parents was that they were both high school graduates.

In 1940 Utah was second in the nation in high school completion rate, the census shows, but that rate was only 37.0 percent. Nationally, less than one quarter of people age 25 and older had completed high school. The median number of years of school Utahns had was just over 10, but it was nearly 11 years for city dwellers and barely 9 for rural farm families.

Utah schools had a different look in 1940. Utah schools were 98.5 percent “native born” white (which included, in the words of the Census, “Mexicans” at that time), less than one percent each of foreign born white and “Negro” students and just over 1 percent “other races.”

Below you can see just how much Utah, and the nation, have changed since 1940 in the field of education.

1940 comparisons between Utah and the nation

Utah United States
Median school years completed  10.2   8.4
% of population over 25 with high school diploma  37.0  24.5
% of students classified as white  98.5  89.8
% of population over 25 with college degree   6.2   4.6

1940-2010 comparisons from Utah

1940 2010
% of population over 25 with high school diploma  37.0  90.6
% of students classified as white  98.5  77.8
% of population over 25 with college degree   6.2  29.4

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