What does the declining birthrate mean for elementary, middle and high schools across the country? According to one set of projections, it could mean 8.5 percent fewer public school students a decade from now.
“If it does come true, we’re going to see massive changes,” said Mike Griffith, a school finance specialist at the Education Commission of the States, a think tank that aims to inform education policy. “Nobody is talking about this.”
Griffith says that a decline this large will likely lead to school closures around the country along with some unexpected consequences, such as more full-day kindergarten and publicly funded pre-kindergarten. Rural areas, already hard hit by depopulation, will likely feel the effects most severely. Teachers may face a tighter labor market.
I calculated a gradual decline in enrollment from projections made by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), a nonprofit agency among 15 states. The organization predicts the number of high school graduates to help colleges plan for the number of students in the future. But in order to predict high school graduates, WICHE’s statisticians also projected student enrollments for first grade through 2020 to 12th grade through 2030.
These grade-by-grade projections start to show a drop in first-grade children beginning in 2014, six years after the 2008 recession, when Americans started making fewer babies. (Economic uncertainty apparently has this side effect.) Fertility rates have continued to decline since, despite the economic recovery, and WICHE predicts the number of first graders will fall by more than 330,000 to 3.6 million in 2019. That’s a 8.5 percent decline from a peak of 3.9 million first graders in 2013. This 8.5 percent enrollment drop cascades through the whole elementary-to-high-school system as these first graders age and progress into higher grades.
Total enrollment diminishes gradually. The projections for all 12 grades end after 2020, but before that, between 2015 and 2020, the total number of students falls by only 1.4 percent or roughly 600,000 students. That’s because, even by 2020, the post-recessionary birth dearth is only beginning to reach seventh grade. Grades eight through 12 are larger cohorts who were born before 2008.
Full high school projections extend further through 2028 in the WICHE data. The number of high school students is expected to fall by 6.8 percent or 1 million students from 15.4 million students in 2022 to 14.3 million students in 2028. That’s an indication of how the whole system might lose students.
It’s important to point out that the National Center for Education Statistics, the statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Education, shows an opposite trend. Its most recent projections, released May 2018, show that student enrollment should increase 3 percent between 2015 and 2027. However those projections were based on 2014 Census Department data which didn’t factor in continued fertility declines through 2017, when the U.S. birthrate hit a 30-year low. Those 2014 Census figures also factored in higher levels of immigration, which have since fallen. In addition, the Education Department statistics include pre-K and kindergarten, which have been expanding across the nation, while the WICHE figures begin at first grade.
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