Projecting Student Enrollment in Tough Economic Times

National economic problems are impacting local school districts as states cut back on aid and taxpayers resist increases. On top of the summer’s spike in fuel costs, these problems are forcing school districts to make difficult spending decisions. But there is another significant way in which the current recession could affect your schools. It could impact the number of children you will be serving over the next several years.

School enrollment for this school year is now official. In most states, sometime in October, school districts take a snapshot on a given day or week of the number of students enrolled and of their makeup (male/female, racial identification, etc.). That becomes the base for statistical studies and for making projections of student population in the future. 

October enrollment is not perfect. Particularly in large districts there is constant change, and sometimes the swing is fairly large. Many districts see enrollment rise or fall steadily through the year so that for class planning purposes it often makes more sense to look at the enrollment in June to project the number of teachers that will be needed the following fall.

Nevertheless, your district’s official enrollment, the one that is reported to the state, and eventually to the federal government, and the one that funding is often based upon, is the one recorded in October.  It is also the one that should be used to project student population for the future, since it is a consistent element — the same designated time is used year after year. 

Analyze Unexpected Changes
Enrollment projections are not something to just put away on a shelf. With this year’s enrollment in hand, it’s important to look at how it matches previous projections. If there are unexpected losses or gains, the reasons need to be analyzed to learn what is happening and how that might affect the future. 

In one district I served, kindergarten enrollment was significantly lower than expected. A review showed that parents were sending their children to a new private school with full-day kindergarten; the public school offered only a half-day option. That was a pretty obvious cause and effect. In another case, a district that usually lost students in the transition from elementary to middle school was showing greater holding power, a positive change.  Whatever the reason, comparing your current enrollment with what was expected can be a useful tool of analysis and, in some cases, may lead to changes in district policies.

Projecting the Future

How about looking ahead? The most popular means for projecting future student enrollment is cohort survival. Essentially it looks at the progression from grade to grade over the last few years and projects that the pattern will continue. Thus, if over the last three years the number of students in one year’s third grade is consistently greater than the number in the previous year’s second grade, one can project that the same pattern will continue. If all else is normal — if there are no significant changes outside the schools and the community — cohort survival projections are pretty accurate.

But all is not normal right now. We are in an abnormal economic situation, and that abnormality can have a direct impact on the schools. Here are some questions beyond cohort survival that you should be asking real estate experts and others as you project student population over the next few years.
  1. How is the housing crisis playing out in the district? Is it delaying construction of new houses? A slowdown of construction will also slow the number of new students.
  2. Have falling home prices caused empty nesters to remain in their houses? If fewer houses turn over, fewer new students are likely.
  3. Are there families who are losing their houses, and are those houses remaining empty because there are no buyers?
  4. What is the area employment picture? Are companies laying off workers? How will that affect student population over the next few years?
  5. How stable are local independent and charter schools? Many schools are having difficulty with their budgets and may have to close.
  6. With job losses and the value of retirement accounts and investments falling, how many parents who now send their children to non-public schools will cut costs by sending them to the public schools?

In these abnormal times, getting answers to these questions and using the results to modify your normal cohort survival projections can give you a much more accurate estimate of future student population. It’s worth the time and effort.

Paul Abramson is an education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, and educational facility consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, NY. He was recently named CEFPI's 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."