Together, secondary and postsecondary education comprise the education that a student receives after fifth grade. Before that point, students receive primary or elementary education from kindergarten through fifth grade. Secondary education, along with postsecondary education for some, propels students into adulthood and aims to give them necessary career skills.

Secondary Education

Secondary education refers to schooling that takes place during the middle and high school years, between sixth and twelfth grade. It is divided into courses in English, mathematics, social studies, science and foreign language. For some, secondary education includes electives such as music or drama. In the U.S., public secondary education is free and available to all. Secondary education is compulsory in the U.S. through the age of 16.


Postsecondary, or tertiary, education includes any educational program that takes place after you complete your secondary education. This includes community college, professional certification, undergraduate education and graduate school. Postsecondary education is more advanced and specialized than secondary education. Postsecondary education is also broad, allowing students to pursue the subjects that most interest them. Students can receive a wide range of degrees, from a broad liberal arts degree that deepens critical-thinking skills, to a more hands-on business degree.

Purposes of Secondary and Postsecondary Schooling

The purpose of secondary education is to ready students to either pursue a postsecondary education or enter into a vocational career that does not require further formal study. Postsecondary education helps students develop skills and expertise they can apply in later professional careers. For example, a student who studies English may pursue a career as an editor. A medical student studies to become a doctor. A computer engineering student may become a computer scientist. The goals are twofold: to help students develop independent reasoning skills and to prepare them for the job market.

Equality and Access

In the U.S., income inequality affects the quality of secondary public education such that children from low-income families sometimes attend poorly performing, less funded schools. This can limit their access to postsecondary education opportunities and set them up for academic and financial struggles when they choose to further their studies. The number of women receiving postsecondary education surpasses that of men in the U.S., but subtle forms of gender inequality, such as a professor's preferential treatment of males, can deter some women from specializing in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as math and science.