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- Enrollment in K-12 public schools fell 2% below projections for fall 2021, meaning 833,000 fewer places were filled and a higher education sector already bracing for an enrollment bottleneck now facing heightened risks.
- Reports of students struggling in the classroom with the COVID-19 pandemic could also indicate that the number of high school graduates will drop more than previously expected after 2025, according to a new report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
- Enrollment changes reflect the transition of some students to home or private schools. However, they are also having particularly profound pandemic effects on several traditionally underserved racial and ethnic groups.
The health of the K-12 pipeline has been a major concern for colleges since the pandemic began disrupting education in 2020. Current student issues may mean lower high school graduation rates in the future—and most colleges are overwhelmingly dependent on high school graduates. who build an incoming every autumn. class.
WICHE has become a common source of K-12 enrollment data and projections for college leaders who want to understand what future years are likely to hold. His previous projections showed high school graduates peak in 2025 and become much more diverse.
This has prompted institutions to prepare for what is sometimes called an enrollment cliff or a demographic cliff. Some admissions officials and equity advocates reject the terms, arguing that colleges should be able to overcome declining high school graduation rates by reaching students they traditionally haven’t enrolled in large numbers, such as low-income and non-white students. Others warn that changes in enrollment will vary by state and region compared to the national level, and that demand for a college varies greatly by institution’s market position.
Still, the overall decline in K-12 enrollment and high school graduation is generally seen as a downward pressure on enrollment and financial prospects in higher education.
This background gives WICHE’s new report, released on Tuesday, even more significance. The conclusions it draws are limited – it says the currently available data do not allow the full effects of the pandemic to be known. But it still paints a picture of where the cracks have appeared in the K-12 pipeline.
The number of high school graduates for the classes of 2020 and 2021 was relatively stable, the report said. This coincides with other research suggesting that the drop in college enrollment during the pandemic is due to a change in student behavior, not a drop in the number of high school graduates available to graduate from college.
The WICHE report shows an increase in the number of 9th grade students in the fall of 2021. The number of 9th grade public school enrollments increased by 4% between the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2021, or 152,200 students. This is approximately double the year-on-year increase. was expected for the cohort of students.
The change could reflect students re-enrolling in public schools after homeschooling or turning to private schools in 2020. However, WICHE also flagged evidence that more students were repeating Grade 9 after failing to progress to Grade 10.
“Research shows that students who drop out of the educational pathway in 9th grade are less likely to eventually graduate,” the report states.
High school indicators raise even more flags. Enrollment of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in public schools fell 2% in fall 2021, a sharper decline than the expected 1.4% decline. Spring 2022 test results show that high school students are struggling more than younger students during the pandemic and are not able to recover as quickly. Their math skills were particularly hard hit.
Enrollment in grades 1 to 5 recovered between fall 2020 and fall 2021 to resemble projected levels, WICHE found. But once again there were declines in learning.
“If these factors were to remain unchanged, over time it could exacerbate future enrollment problems in higher education,” the report said.
Some declines in public school enrollment may reflect increased enrollment in private schools or home schools. This could be a boost for some colleges that traditionally recruit heavily from private and home schools. However, the WICHE report warns that it is difficult to measure these student numbers and academic performance, and that it is unclear whether the pandemic shifts will persist into the future.
WICHE also disaggregated enrollments by race and ethnicity. Available data indicate that public school enrollment declined faster than expected for white non-Hispanic students, black non-Hispanic students, Asian non-Hispanic students, and Native Hawaiian and other non-Hispanic Pacific Islander students.
“The impacts of the pandemic on historically underserved student populations could be a major cause of the potential disruption to projected U.S. high school graduation rates,” the report said.