EY Diverse Primary Classroom

Where have all the students gone?

The US public pre-K-12 school system has seen a ~2.6% decline in enrollment since SY20. Where have the students gone, and will they come back?

In brief

  • After decades of steady year over year growth, the US pre-K-12 public school system is experiencing declining enrollment.
  • This enrollment decline raises critical questions for states and school districts, as well as for companies providing products to the pre-K-12 space.

After experiencing nearly 30 years of steady ~1% year over year growth from SY90-20,¹ the US pre-K-12 public school system enrolled ~51m students by SY2020. By SY2022, ~1.3m had disappeared from the enrollment numbers,² with even more disappearing from public district schools (vs. public charters). This enrollment decline raises critical questions for states and school districts, as well as for companies providing products to the pre-K-12 space. How much of this decline is related to the short-term impacts of COVID-19 and how much is structural, which will need to be planned for over years to come? Are enrollment declines likely to persist and, if so, what will be the impacts on districts and the companies that serve them?

The EY-Parthenon team analyzed secondary research and data available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Census Bureau and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). We also conducted interviews with state and district stakeholders to better understand the nature of the recent decline in enrollment, future expectations for enrollment, and explore key questions and implications for states and districts and companies serving K-12 districts going forward.

Recent declines in enrollment have not been uniformly distributed

The 1.3m student decline represents a ~1% decline in pre-K-12 public enrollments on average, but this decline varied greatly state and grade.

COVID-19 disrupted typical enrollment patterns

Birth rate declines appear to account for approximately 25% of the pre-K-12 enrollment decline from SY20-22. But, especially at the elementary level, demographics do not explain everything. Examining differences in enrollment changes by state reveals the significant role of the pandemic: states with higher degrees of remote education in November 2020 experienced more significant declines in enrollment over SY20-22.

So, where did the students actually go throughout the pandemic? There are several factors at play:

K-12 enrollment declines are expected to continue

Some of the drivers of enrollment declines may prove to be more long lasting than others. Depending on how public schools respond, families that migrated to virtual and private schools may return in the future.

However, the structural groundwork for the K-12 enrollment decline — the national birth rate — has little to do with the pandemic and will therefore continue to impact our school system.

From 2008-20, birth rates in the US declined by ~1.3% annually, translating to ~700k total fewer students entering the schooling system from SY2012 up to SY2025.⁹ Although the CBO is projecting an increase in births from 2021 onward, the impact of the prior declines will be felt through to at least 2037.

While net immigration patterns have the potential to offset some of the declines in enrollment driven by birth rates, absent significant immigration policy changes, the impact will likely not be enough to overcome the overall projected decline. The CBO projects a positive average annual net migration of ~270k for pre-K-12 age students from SY2023-SY30,¹⁰ compared to an average annual decline of ~450k pre-K-12 students based on historic declines in birth rates.¹¹

Implications for Pre-K-12 stakeholders

Many of the financial implications of the enrollment declines from SY20-22 have not yet been felt because of state or local decisions to hold districts harmless for declines and/or because the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars have added significant funding into the system through SY24. As enrollment declines continue, ESSER funding expires and a potential recession looms, districts and states, along with companies serving the public-school ecosystem, will likely need to be strategic about how they address this new reality. 

States should consider the following questions and implications:

Funding adjustments:

How might state education budgets and funding formulas need to adapt to support districts in a new enrollment reality, given most states currently use a form of enrollment-based funding?

States with short-term hold harmless policies will need to adjust their funding strategy for longer periods of declines. States may consider implementing resource-based allocation or hybrid models that have smaller portions of funding based on enrollment. If states and districts maintain overall funding levels for schools and per student funding allocations during an environment of enrollment declines, there may be excess funding in the system. Funds may be redirected to address learning loss coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Districts should consider the following questions and implications:

Companies serving the public K-12 system should consider the following questions and implications:

Thank you to Rebecca Mitchell and Sam Wolfson for contributing to this article.


The answer to the question, “Where have all the students gone?” is a complicated one — but one thing is clear: at least ~25% of the lost students over SY20-22 are not coming back. This means that states, districts and the companies that serve them will soon need to grapple with the impact of this new environment — one where innovation, transparency and results will become ever more important.

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