Pennsylvania lagged behind many of its neighbors in establishing a free public school system. From colonial times until the 1830s, almost all instruction in reading and writing took place in private schools. Called "dame schools" in the cities and "neighborhood schools" in rural areas, they offered primary courses, usually taught by women in their own homes. In addition, the Quakers, Moravians, and Scots-Irish Presbyterians all formed their own private schools, emphasizing religious study. Many communities also set up secondary schools, called academies, on land granted by the state; by 1850, there were 524 academies, some of which later developed into colleges. A public school law passed in 1834 was not mandatory in the school districts but was still unpopular. Thaddeus Stevens, then a state legislator, is credited with saving the law from repeal in 1835. Two years later, more than 40% of the state's children were in public schools.
As of 2000, 81.9% of the population 25 years old and older had completed four years of high school, and 22.4% had finished four or more years of college.
The total enrollment for fall 1999 in Pennsylvania's public schools stood at 1,816,716. Of these, 1,262,181 attended schools from kindergarten through grade eight, and 554,535 attended high school. Minority students made up approximately 22% of the total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools in 2001. Total enrollment was estimated at 1,811,030 in fall 2000. Expenditures for public education in 2000/01 were estimated at $15,070,000. Enrollment in nonpublic schools in fall 2001 was 339,484.
As of fall 2000, there were 703,163 students enrolled in college or graduate school. In the same year Pennsylvania had 263 degree-granting institutions. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, established in 1872, accounted for about 15% of this enrollment. Four universities have nonprofit corporate charters but are classified as state-related: Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln University. Of these, Penn State is by far the largest. Founded in 1855 as the Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania, Penn State now has its main campus at University Park and 23 smaller campus locations statewide. In 2000 there were 21 community colleges and one technical institute.
There are eight state-aided private institutions receiving designated grants from the legislature. The largest of these schools is the University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin as the Philadelphia Academy and Charitable School; among its noteworthy professional schools is the Wharton School of Business. Other private colleges and universities, also eligible to receive state aid through a per-pupil funding formula, include Bryn Mawr College (founded in 1880), Bucknell University (1846) in Lewisburg, Carnegie-Mellon University (1900) in Pittsburgh, Dickinson College (1733) in Carlisle, Duquesne University (1878) in Pittsburgh, Haverford College (1833), Lafayette College (1826), Lehigh University (1865), Swarthmore College (1864), and Villanova University (1842). In 1997, minority students comprised 14.7% of total postsecondary enrollment. The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency offers higher education grants, guarantees private loans, and administers work-study programs for Pennsylvania students.