Although public instruction began in Texas as early as 1746, education was slow to develop during the period of Spanish and Mexican rule. The legislative foundation for a public school system was laid by the government of the Republic of Texas during the late 1830s, but funding was slow in coming. After annexation, in 1846, Galveston began to support free public schools, and San Antonio had at least four free schools by the time a statewide system of public education was established in 1854. Free segregated schooling was provided for black children beginning in the 1870s, but their schools were ill-maintained and underfinanced. School desegregation was accomplished during the 1960s, nonviolently for the most part.

In 2000, 75.7% of the population 25 years old and over had completed four years of high school, and 23.2% had four or more years of college. The total enrollment for fall 1999 in Texas public schools stood at 3,991,783. Of these, 2,895,853 attended schools from kindergarten through grade eight, and 1,095,930 attended high school. Minority students made up approximately 59% of the total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools in 2001. Total enrollment was estimated at 4,033,697 in fall 2000 and is expected to reach 4,248,000 by fall 2005. Expenditures for public education in 2000/01 were estimated at $25,753,029. Enrollment in nonpublic schools in fall 2001 was 227,645.

As of fall 2000, there were 1,202,890 students enrolled in college or graduate school. In the same year Texas had 201 degree-granting institutions. Institutions of higher education include 42 public four-year colleges and universities, 67 public community college campuses, and more than 38 private institutions. The leading public universities are Texas A&M (College Station), which opened in 1876, and the University of Texas (Austin), founded in 1883. Each institution is now the center of its own university system, including campuses in several other cities. Oil was discovered on lands owned by the University of Texas in 1923, and beginning in 1924, the university and Texas A&M shared more than $1 billion in oil-related rentals and royalties. Other state-supported institutions include the University of Houston and Texas Tech University (Lubbock).

The first private college in Texas was Rutersville, established by a Methodist minister in Fayette County in 1840. The oldest private institution still active in the state is Baylor University (1845), at Waco. Other major private universities include Hardin-Simmons (Abilene), Rice (Houston), Southern Methodist or SMU (Dallas), and Texas Christian, or TCU (Ft. Worth). Well-known black-oriented institutions of higher learning include Texas Southern University in Houston and Prairie View A&M University. In 1997, minority students comprised 38.2% of total postsecondary enrollment.

Tuition charges to Texas colleges are among the lowest in the nation. The Texas Student Assistance Corp. administers a guaranteed-loan program and tuition equalization grants for needy students.