Surprising K12 enrollment declines are trickling up into higher ed

About 833,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools in fall 2021 than had been predicted.

An unexpected 2% decline in K12 enrollment is putting a kink in the higher education pipeline, spreading the ramifications from kindergarten up into the halls of academia. About 833,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools in fall 2021 than had been predicted, with the most surprising drops occurring in middle school, according to the “Knocking on the College Door” report just released by WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

College leaders must therefore prepare for long-term enrollment challenges. “Higher education planners and policymakers are grappling with the lingering impacts of COVID-19 on college enrollment,” the authors of the report warn. “They should also watch for COVID19’s ravages on the K-12 student pipeline, as these young students may carry the effects of pandemic learning well into their college-going years.”

Graduation rates appear stable for students who were in 11th and 12th grade when COVID struck. But the decreases in middle school enrollment and the extent of learning loss may foretell larger-than-predicted declines in graduation rates starting in 2025, wiping out the hopes of some observers for a modest increase in high school completion, the WICHE report found. Researchers also noted a “bulge” in the number of ninth graders that could be a sign of students being held back, indicating academic struggles that could also weigh on graduation rates.

Falling enrollment can, to some extent, be blamed on students shifting to homeschooling and private schools. But variability also reflects the greater impacts the pandemic has had on historically underserved and underresourced students, which could further sap the education pipeline. And, as most K12 leaders know, the nation’s youth population was declining prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The U.S. birth cohort shrank for 14 years consecutively, resulting in a 3% decrease in first- through fifth-grade enrollment by fall 2019 when 18.17 million students attended those grades, compared to fall 2015 which saw a peak of 18.75 million students. “The complex convergence of shifting age demographics, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing educational inequities make it increasingly difficult to determine the primary driving force behind changes in public school populations,” the report’s authors assert.

“Additionally, growing research suggests a significant number of enrolled students who may be falling behind or disengaging from schooling altogether, which would have an additional negative impact on high school graduate numbers.”

Education pipeline particulars

There was a disproportionate decrease in the number of white students in fall 2020 and fall 2021. White students, in fact, accounted for 75% of the overall nation’s public school enrollment decline during these two years even though they comprised less than half of public school enrollment in 2019. Enrollment of white ninth graders also dropped, indicating they may not have been held back in significant numbers.

On the other hand, public schools saw larger than expected increases in ninth-grade enrollment of Hispanic (+7%) and Black students (+6.7%). Total Hispanic enrollment was virtually unchanged from in fall 2020 to fall 2021 while Black student enrollment declined slightly each year. “A substantial portion of the public school enrollment declines may be students who shifted to other learning environments and not who have disengaged from school,” the report concludes. “It is unknown whether the level of homeschooling and possible shifts to private schools will be sustained.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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