Federal Dateline

Now You See Them, Now You Don't: Enrollment Trends

by Noelle M. Ellerson

Student enrollment is a fluid number, constantly changing. Any number of reasons can account for shifts in enrollment — an influx of immigrant families from a troubled part of the world, the closing of a major local employer and changing community demographics, among them.

Explaining enrollment shifts to parents and community members can be a complex task. Before we can account for the whys and hows of changes in student enrollment, we have to understand how student enrollment has changed. Appreciating the history of enrollment trends in the United States, in particular K-12 student enrollment over the last seven school years, can help us understand its impact.

Historically, enrollment in elementary and secondary schools grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s before peaking in 1971. The years that followed were marked by a steady decline in enrollment, a trend that continued until 1985. Schools started hitting new record enrollment levels in the mid-1990s. The National Center for Educational Statistics now projects that school enrollment will continue to set new records every year from 2006 until at least 2014.

Physical Locations
AASA has been working with a database of almost 14,700 districts across the country that tracks school enrollment for each of the school years between 1999-2000 and 2005-06. On a year-to-year basis, the data illustrate the overall trends in school enrollment. The database allows us to examine how enrollment has changed, to look at the overall enrollment trends at the state level for the entire seven-year span and to identify the types of schools (rural, urban, suburban) where the biggest changes are happening.

Perhaps most telling, however, are the locale codes included in the data set. Locale codes are used to describe a school’s location, ranging from large city to rural. Locale codes are derived from a classification system originally developed by NCES in the 1980s and are based on the physical location represented by an address that is matched against a geographic database maintained by the Census Bureau. Of the eight locale codes used to classify schools, locales one through six are generally considered urban/suburban/town while locales seven and eight are considered rural. Taken together, the dataset and locale codes tell us not only how school enrollment is changing but also where it is changing.

Between 1999 and 2006, 2,583 schools experienced enrollment growth of 10 percent or more. During the same time frame, 3,672 schools experienced an enrollment decline of 10 percent or more. Some 1,190 schools reported enrollment growth of 20 percent or more, and 1,330 schools reported enrollment decline of 20 percent or more. To put that into perspective, 17.6 percent of all schools experienced growth of 10 percent or more while 25 percent experienced enrollment decline of 10 percent or more. (Side note: Schools counted at the 20 percent threshold are included in the 10 percent or more threshold.)

The numbers alone show that more schools are losing enrollment than are gaining enrollment. Digging deeper into the data, however, we see that the change is concentrated in the rural areas. Locale codes seven and eight represent 44 percent of schools experiencing an enrollment decline of 10 percent or more. Those same locales represent 45 percent of schools experiencing enrollment growth of 10 percent or more. The concentration of lost enrollment makes more sense when put into context. Of the almost 14,700 school districts in the dataset, 51 percent are classified as rural.

The change in rural enrollment can be attributed to both an increase in students attending schools in rural areas and a decrease in students attending schools in urban and suburban settings. Unfortunately, the database does not provide data that allow us to examine exactly where the students are moving. Did the student move from one rural school to another? Or are the rural students leaving for more urban schools while their urban counterparts move to more rural communities?

Further Analysis
These are the types of questions we may hope to answer in the future as data capacity expands at the state level. For now, however, we have to work with data that are available and provide analysis from a broader national and state level.

The summary statements above are at the national level and do not necessarily apply at the more local or even the state level. Each state has its own demographics in terms of urban/suburban/rural school count and enrollment trends.

For further analysis of enrollment trends at the national level and to see how school enrollment is changing in your state, please visit www.aasa.org/policy/se. Take a few minutes to examine how enrollment patterns vary state to state and look at the diverse education environments that exist across our 50 states.

Noelle Ellerson is a policy analyst at AASA. E-mail: nellerson@aasa.org