Which States Face Enrollment Boom or Bust?

By Francisco Vara-Orta — July 21, 2017 4 min read
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West of the Mississippi River seems best and the Northeast gets the least when it comes to where more students will be showing up to public schools throughout the next decade, according to the latest enrollment projections from the U.S. Department of Education.

States in the South will see student enrollment jump by 8.3 percent by 2026, and the West should grow by about 4.3 percent, data from the National Center for Education Statistics projects. States in the southeastern corner of the country fare well in general.

The largest student enrollment increase is slated to take place in the District of Columbia, at 42 percent. Further west, North Dakota is poised to see the second largest boost in enrollment, at 28 percent.

Roughly speaking, the states in the Northeast and Midwest could see drops in overall student enrollment accelerate even faster than they did post-recession. The Northeast saw its student enrollment decrease by 1.4 percent from 2009 through 2014, but that is estimated to widen to a 5 percent reduction between 2014 and 2026.

The Midwest will see its rate of student enrollment decline triple, from a 1 percent dip between 2009 and 2014 to a 3 percent decrease by 2026. Both Connecticut and New Hampshire are tied for states likely to see the largest dip - at 14 percent each.

What’s Causing Fluctuations in Student Enrollment?

William Hussar, an economist at NCES who co-authors an annual report on enrollment projections and has studied enrollment data for 30 years at the department, said his agency’s figures are chiefly based on what student enrollment has looked like recently in schools, and less on what general population data could prognosticate.

In other words, the projections don’t heavily take into account birth or mortality rates that others might use. The NCES taps into some U.S. Census Bureau data for its national projections, and in recent years, partnered with IHS Global Inc. to help sharpen its state-level projections.

The projections matched the population trends that states at both ends of the NCES projections have noticed. Education leaders in the District of Columbia and North Dakota are elated at what’s forecast for their public schools.

“Over the past 10 years, the District has been committed to education reform and ensuring every student has access to a high-quality education,” said Shayne Wells, a spokesman for Jennifer Niles, the city’s deputy mayor for education.

The shift toward year-over-year enrollment growth is a dramatic change for Washington, where for decades the public schools experienced major declines as charter schools proliferated across the city and higher-income families sent their children to private schools.

Wells cited some bullet points of pride in bringing in families including more than 4,000 students who are enrolled in the city’s extended-year schools and roughly 400 students who went on study abroad trips this summer. “We continue to make critical investments in our students’ success and closing the achievement gap.”

North Dakota state school superintendent Kirsten Baesler said the state’s student enrollment projections match that of the federal government, which could be tested in the future by some grim economic forecasts amid high prices for oil and agricultural products.

“Even though we have had a downturn, many families that have moved here have chosen to stay here because of the quality education that their children are getting in our public schools,” Baesler said. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard comments throughout the state, and especially when I go to western North Dakota, that our public schools here are equal to, or better than, any private school that their children were attending in their previous community.”

With a forecasted drop of 14 percent in the next decade in Connecticut’s schools, demographers in that state say the projection lines up with decreasing birth rates there.

Michael R. Howser, the director of Connecticut’s State Data Center, said that while his center does not provide district or school enrollment projections, the NCES numbers match their forecast for the state by 2025. Howser said the trend is “due largely to the low fertility rate for Connecticut combined with a low net migration rate” for the state.

The center’s associate director, Steve Batt, also cited data showing that four of the five states with the greatest projected decline in school enrollment, according to the NCES, are in New England so the Education Department’s projections are “no coincidence.” Connecticut’s population aged 5-19 was 17 percent smaller in 2010 than in 1970, and is expected to decline another 12 percent between 2015 and 2025, Batt said.

Hussar, with NCES, stressed that states with smaller overall student population counts, such as North Dakota, can make a dramatic percentage jump. So while that boost may challenge their systems to keep up with growth, it doesn’t mean those states are seeing the biggest increases in actual numbers of students. For example, between 2014 and 2026, North Dakota will add 30,114 students, whereas Texas will add 714,635 new pupils, the projections found.

Margins of error can vary widely, as reported on the agency’s site, as Hussar said the projections are purely based on what they are seeing in schools now and don’t surmise what could be causing the changes, or what may come in the form of economic booms or recessions at the state or national level.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.