The United States is poised in an interesting position, so far as education is concerned. While the US’ birthrate is beginning to slow (due to a wide variety of societal and workforce trends), US schools are still growing. As such, education professionals and school district planners alike must anticipate how their individual districts will grow based upon these key enrollment statistics provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the US Department of Education).
There’s a great deal hiding beneath the surface of the US’ overall student population, which currently stands at around 76,000,000.
For example, while nearly every other grade level (elementary and secondary) has seen experienced temporary downward trends during the 2000-2015 sampling window, both kindergarten and 12th-grade enrollments have reliably increased. This indicates that nationwide programs the reinforce these introductory and endpoint educational levels have been successful to a degree.
Read on the learn more about these crucial education statistics, as well as what to expect regarding future student enrollments levels, future teacher employment levels, and future teacher/pupil ratios. Each set of statistics is accompanied by a succinct breakdown and prognosis of trends indicated by this contemporary government data.
- In fall 2018, about 56.6 million students will attend elementary and secondary schools, including 50.7 million students in public schools and 5.9 million in private schools.
- The average secondary school has 948 students. Primary schools have an average of 281 students.
- US schools grew from 47,204,000 students in 2000 to around 50,438,000 students in 2015.
- In 2017, there were about 4.8M teachers in the U.S. including preschool to postsecondary, special ed and other teachers and instructors.
Key US School Enrollment Statistics
In general, schools across the United States – both elementary and secondary – are growing, requiring district and state education professions to plan for a future that includes more resources and more educational spaces. However, the US enrollment data is not monolithic and in fact reveals a great deal of complexity requiring further analysis.
All Grades Enrollment Trends
Across all grades, US schools grew from a total enrollment of 47,204,000 students in 2000 to around 50,438,000 students in 2015. In general, this represents a consistent level of growth consistent with the US’ positive (though slowing) birth rate. Also, this level of growth is beginning to slow down as efforts bolster school rosters throughout the 1970s and 1980s have begun to wind down.
Looking towards the future, experts estimate that student enrollment across all grades will rise to a total number of 52,059,000 by 2027. Keen observers will note that this rate of growth is generally lower than the rate of growth seen between 2000 and 2015 (a similar sampling window). This is consistent with current trends that anticipate a level growth pattern for future enrollment as US birth rates even out.
General Elementary School Enrollment Trends
Elementary schools have received the brunt of the overall student enrollment growth based on current statistics. Between 2000 and 2015, overall elementary school enrollment rose from 33,686,000 to 35,388,000. This upward trend is consistent with the overall enrollment growth trend and may be larger than previous estimates given the exponential growth of pre-kindergarten enrollment (see below for more details).
Looking to the future, elementary school enrollment is expected to grow further, up to 36,668,000 by 2027. While this is a lower rate of growth than seen over the previous decade, this estimate still represents an expected growth in the volume of students (especially among specific demographic groups).
General Secondary School Enrollment Trends
Secondary schools have also grown by a noteworthy margin, rising from 13,517,000 in 2000 to around 15,050,000 in 2015. This is a fairly consistent increase in student volume when compared to elementary school enrollment increases, indicating a trend that doesn’t favor one level of schooling over another.
Looking towards the future, secondary school enrollment growth is only expected to rise to 15,391,000 by 2027. While this is only an estimate at this time, this represents a nearly net neutral increase over the coming years. This may indicate a statistically significant shift in US student enrollment rates between elementary school and secondary school students if this trend holds out.
General Enrollment Trends based on Ethnicity and Race
There are several current trends in US school enrollment based on race and ethnicity that are statistically significant enough for general consideration. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the downward trend of white students in US schools, which has decreased from 29,035,000 in 1999 to 24,644,000 in 2015. This is one of the largest drops recorded among any demographic group. This rate of decrease is expected to taper off towards 2027 to the tune of 23,274,000 students.
In a similar trend, black student enrollment rates have decreased between 1999 and 2015, down from 8,066,000 to 7,784,000. This rate of decrease is lower overall compared to white students and is expected to even out in the next 12 years to 7,888,000 by 2027.
By far, the largest single demographic group increase in enrollment is among Hispanic students, which nearly doubled from 7,327,000 students in 1999 to 13,080,000 in 2015. While this rate of increase is expected to slow to 15,209,000 by 2027, education professionals should expect a broad increase of Hispanic students in the immediate future, regardless of region.
General Enrollment Trends relating to Teachers
Teacher employment rates are increasing at this time, up from 3,366,000 teachers across public and private schools in 1999 to 3,633,000 teachers in 2015. This rate is expected to remain consistent, up to 3,919,000 in 2027.
As of now, it is expected that this hiring rate is expected to lower the overall pupil/teacher ration ever so slightly, down in 2015 to 15.5 from 15.9 in 1999. This trend may continue further to 14.9, assuming current trends towards smaller class sizes and more skill level differentiations continue to some degree of success.
Trends in Public School Enrollment
From 1990 to 2015, the vast majority of enrollment growth in the United States have taken place in the public sector. In this time period, public school enrollment across all grades rose from 41,217,000 in 1990 to 50,438,000 in 2015 – a nearly 25% increase overall. This rate of increase in public school students should not be taken as an established rule, though, as this rate of increase is expected to slow down slightly to 58,239,000 by 2027.
As a trend, this rate of growth indicates that public school districts have been adding more students to their rosters even though the number of school districts has been shrinking due to consolidation in some parts of the country. This rise in public school students may be resulting in a further concentration of resources, allowing for larger enrollment figures in conjunction with improvements of pupil/teacher ratios.
To break down matters further, public elementary schools and public secondary schools (including K-12 schools) have seen comparable rates of growth over the past several decades. Public elementary schools have grown from 29,876,000 in 1990 to 35,388,000 in 2015. This rate increase should not be trusted for the long-term though, as this enrollment volume is expected to even out significantly to 36,668,000 by 2027.
Public secondary schools grew at a similar rate, a logical conclusion given the standard progression in US schools. From 1990 to 2015, these schools grew from 11,341,000 to 15,050,000 students – around an 18% increase. This growth is expected to peak around 2023 at 15,585,000 and subside to near 15,391,000 in 2027. This rise and fall pattern may hold further insight regarding the future of US high schools, especially regarding the pupil/teacher ratio.
Trends in Private School Enrollment
Private school enrollment, on the other hand, has seen far more mixed changes during the survey period. Private elementary school enrollment, for example, has dropped significantly from 4,512,000 in 1990 to 4,304,000 in 2015. While the precise cause of this drop is unclear, it may be the result of perceived problems in religious private schools.
Some private religious schools (especially Catholic schools) are fighting negative public perceptions relating to student privacy, potentially resulting in lower enrollments. In any case, this enrollment dip is expected to rebound by 2027, rising back to regular levels at 4,533,000 students.
Private secondary schools have not been affected in the same manner, with their student enrollment increasing across all grades between 1990 and 2015 from 1,136,000 to 1,446,000, respectively. Moreover, this student population is expected to balloon out to 1,646,000 by 2027. Because these statistics do not separate out charter school students, it is possible that the emergence of these semi-private schools accounts for this statistically significant growth rate increase.
Trends in Elementary School Enrollment by Grade
As noted above, US elementary school enrollment is generally on the rise. However, this broad trend also reveals interesting discrepancies that experts may need to examine more to better anticipate unexpected declines in certain grade brackets in the immediate future.
One major trend that education researchers should note is the explosion in pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) enrollment. Between 2000 and 2015 alone, Pre-K enrollment has nearly doubled from 776,000 to 1,402,000. This massive increase can likely be attributed to state and federal efforts to provide affordable Pre-K and early screenings options to working parents. In the future, though, this rate of growth is expected to mellow out to around 1,474,000 in 2027 as more parents adjust to the practice of Pre-K education.
Several elementary grade levels, in particular, have seen unusual fluctuations in enrollment that do not align with the broader growth rates. US 2nd grade enrollment is a prime example, as it peaked in the mid-2000s at 3,704,000 before declining to 3,665,000 in 2008. 2nd grade enrollment rates rebound by 2015 to 3,842,000, leading to the assumption that this was just a minor hiccup.
This fluctuation was not only felt in 2nd-grade enrollment, though. 6th-grade enrollment also saw a similar net loss. 6th-grade enrollment reached a recent peak in 2001 at 3,788,000 and then bottomed out to 3,614,000 by 2008. Though 6th-grade enrollment has rebounded partially to 3,731,000 in 2015, this overall lose represents a considerable point of interest for researchers focused on middle-grade retention.
Though these statistics are only so telling, several external factors may have influenced the noteworthy fluctuations in 2nd- and 6th-grade enrollment in the US. For example, both these grades and others saw enrollment drops during the US’ recent economic recession. This economic downturn may have sapped extra fund from school districts, making it more difficult to track and retain students across all grade levels.
Though traditionally ignored, the number of so-called “ungraded” students has also decreased precipitously between 2000 and 2015, dropping from 334 to 87. This decrease is likely the result of improvements made in analyzing individual student needs early on in the education process, leading to better outcomes based on differentiate supports.
Trends in Secondary School Enrollment by Grade
Like all schools across the US, secondary schools have experienced net growth between 2000 and 2015. That being said, there are several areas of interest that can best be connected to this level’s ability to grow and maintain their student population in a healthy manner.
For example, both 10th and 11th-grade enrollment saw comparable levels of student enrollment growth between 2000 and 2015. 10th-grade enrollment rose from 3,491,000 to 3,846,000 during the sampling period while 11th-grade enrollment grew from 3,083,000 to 3,598,000 during the same time period.
9th-grade enrollment did not see nearly as dramatic an increase, however, leading to the belief that these middle two secondary-level grades were better able to retain students once they were adjusted to the increased rigors of high school. Also, because some school districts include 9th grade alongside their middle-level grades, 10th graders and up are more likely to remain enrolled due to shared resources.
However, among all secondary education figures, the volume of 12th-grade growth statistics are the most stunning. In 2000, 12th-grade enrollment stood at only 2,803,000, which is a notable decrease from 11th-grade enrollment figures during the same school year. However, 12th-grade enrollment rose by nearly 25% by 2015, when enrollment figures stood at 3,537,000.
For many decades, school districts around the US have made a concerted effort to retain and graduate high school seniors. This larger-than-average enrollment rate among 12th graders points to considerable success in these efforts, which have included counseling, post-secondary planning, and traditional college alternatives (such as vocational training).
Trends in US School Enrollment by Race and Ethnicity
Demographic data also provides an interesting amount of insight into the current state of student enrollment in the United States. By this same virtue, these demographic-based statistics can also provide actionable information into expected changes in student population makeups in the coming decades.
Note: the following statistics are classified using terminology that not all sociological parties agree with in principle. However, for the purposes of these data sets, the statisticians at the National Center for Education Statistics have found it worthwhile to use these broadly understood categories when it comes to student population identification.
Also, these changes should not be construed to indicate shrinking or growing populations in general. While shifts in the percent shares of certain demographic groups have appeared in the US over the past several decades, the US as a whole is growing in population. As such, many demographic groups have seen higher volumes of student enrollment even as their overall population share has decreased.
Decreases in Enrollment Percent Share among Black and White Students
While the National Center for Education Statistics has provided wrought numerical estimates of how many black and white students currently enrolled in US schools, their percent change statistics are far more useful for understanding how the make-up of US schools has changed and will continue to change.
Perhaps the most noteworthy shift since 1999 has been a significant decrease in the share of white students in US public schools. Back in 1999, white students made up around 62% of all student enrollment (without regards to region). However, just 16 years later in 2015, white student enrollment has dropped to under the ½ mark and settled at 48.9%. This share is expected to drop even further to 44.7% across both elementary and secondary schools by 2027.
No one cause can be attributed to this change, even as the number of white children entering US schools continues to remain steady volume-wise. In general, this dramatic change in enrollment population share can be attributed to a diversifying society that has given more social rights to children of color and Hispanic children in terms of school attendance.
While the precipitous drop among white students appears distinct, black students have similarly seen a drop in overall enrollment population share between 1999 and 2015 – from 17.2% to 15.4% specifically. This drop is likely to tucker out by 2027 at 15.2%, though this still indicates an overall downward trend.
As noted with white students, black students as similarly entering US public schools at consistent rates in terms of volume. However, this enrollment rate has not been enough to offset gains made by other demographic groups, including Hispanic students. Some of this enrollment population share decrease can also be attributed to school integration problems, which are forcing more students of color out of the school system due to inadequate facilities and resources.
Increases in Enrollment Percent Share Among Hispanic Students
As expected, one major demographic group has more than made up for the decreases in enrollment percentage share among white and black students. Indeed, Hispanic students make up nearly double the share of school enrollments (both elementary and secondary) than they did even two decades ago, with 1990’s 15.6% growing to around 25.9% in 2015. In the immediate future, that figure is expected to grow even further to 29.2% in 2027.
In so many words, this change in enrollment percentage share among Hispanic students can broadly be attributed to the rise in Latino and Hispanic people immigrating to the US from Central America. As expected, these immigrating families bring their children, who are entitled to proper public education even if they or their parents are not registered citizens under the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe.
Moreover, several generations of immigrant families from this region have put down roots across the US, especially in the west and southwest. With these growing populations, most other regions should similarly expect a rise in Hispanic students as a percentage of their overall student enrollment population.
This growth factor among Hispanic students can most starkly be seen in the United States’ public high schools. There, the percent share of Hispanic students enrolled in this nation’s high schools has nearly doubled from 13.6% in 1999 to 24.3% in 2015. This sub-group alone is expected to well-over double its 1999 standing, growing to nearly 30.5% by 2027 – equaling nearly 1 in 3 of all American high school age students.
Following along the same lines of as the general Hispanic percentage share growth, this rise can be attributed to the movement of 1st generation immigrant families from Central America as well as 2nd and successive generation families putting down roots in US urban centers. However, high school-age children, in particular, appear to make up a larger-than-average percentage of these children overall, perhaps due to their status as working-age adults in some communities.
Trends Relating to Public School Teachers
With a student enrollment population that is currently set to rise at a moderate rate, there remains an expectation that schools will increase their teacher and support staff faculty in order to accommodate a larger volume of students. At this time, this expectation appears to be met based upon statistical analysis, with the number of teachers in US public schools growing from 2,941,000 in 2000 to around 3,151,000 in 2015. This is a modest amount of growth overall, which is expected to continue up to 3,397,000 by 2027.
This amount of growth, minor though it may be, can be considered a moderate success for education professionals given the nature of considerable teacher shortages in many states across the country. As such, these current stats indicate that this is plenty of room to exceed 2027’s estimates if school districts are better able to secure funding to hire more educators.
Also, this stated growth may not tell the full story regarding the employment status of teachers across the US’ public schools. This data does not differentiate between part-time and full-time teachers, which is an important distinction as school districts in both urban and rural districts tighten their belts. As such, the overall trend in public school teacher growth may be better attributed to the rise in part-time teachers, especially given the 1% decrease in full-time-equivalent teachers in 2016.
Trends Relating to Private School Teachers
Private school teacher employment has been much more sporadic between 2000 and 2015, indicating that the market is looking for some type of stability that is resilient to exterior influences. In terms of wrought numbers, there were 424,000 private school teachers by the end of 2000. This figure had risen to around 456,000 by 2006 before dropping back down quickly to its most recent low of 405,000 in 2011.
As with other aspects of the economy in 2008 and later, it is probable that this extreme fluctuation during the late 2000s was connected to the US’ larger economic recession. This financial pinch decreased the number of private school students during this time, thus decreasing the demand for private school educators in turn. All of this can be chalked up to tuition costs associated with private school attendance, which was less attainable for many families during this time.
As of 2015, there are around 482,000 private school teachers across the US, including both elementary and secondary schools. This attainment of a new high indicates a heightened demand for private education, one that is predicted to continue well into 2027 at 522,000.
Trends in Hiring Public and Private School Teachers
Hiring statistics relating to both public and private school teachers are sparser, representing only a fraction of the years between 2000 and 2015. As such, conclusions gathered from this information should not be used alone when making prognostications about the future of teacher hiring trends.
The earliest reliable hiring information for both public and private teachers derives from 2003, when schools across the US hired 236,000 and 74,000 new teachers in public and private establishments, respectively. These figures showed a slight uptake in 2006, at 246,000 and 80,000 respectively, before dropping dramatically to 173,000 and 68,000.
This most recent drop in teacher hiring in both public and private schools may be an after effect of the nationwide economic recession between 2008 and 2012. While this did not decrease the number of students in US schools overall, it likely caused many school districts to tighten their belts and cut supplementary hiring down to necessary subjects and grades alone.
Looking to the future, hiring in both public and private schools is expected to pick back up. By 2015, public and private institutions had rebounded to 214,000 and 88,000 new teachers hired per year. If estimated growth patterns and differentiation initiatives continue at the current tilt, public schools in the US can expect to hire 278,000 in 2027 while private schools can expect to hire 101,000 new teachers in the same year.
Trends in Pupil/Teacher Ratios
A pupil/teacher ratio describes the average number of students assigned to a teacher per classroom per year or, in the case of secondary schools, per class period. This figure is used for a variety of purposes, including estimating the overall workload of teachers in contract negotiations and to quantify how much attention individual students receive from their teacher.
In general, the US pupil/teacher ratio (which includes both public and private schools) only increases or decrease by very marginal amounts. This can be seen between 2000 and 2015 when the pupil/teacher ratio dropped from 15.9 to 15.6. That being said, the pupil/teacher ratio dropped nearly a whole point in that time, down to 15.0 in 2006.
This later drop in the pupil/teacher ratio can be directly correlated to a rise in teacher hiring and retention in 2006 (as described above.) A lower pupil/teacher ratio is considered more ideal because it leads to more personalized attention per student (in theory), which in turn leads to better student outcomes overall. As such, conservative estimates predict only a 14.9 pupil/teacher ratio by 2027.
While the general trend in the US’ pupil/teacher ratio shows that class sizes are shrinking across the country, the data breakdown between public and private schools tells a different story. Public schools (both primary and secondary) have been broadly resilient to improvements in classroom sizes, with their pupil/teacher ratio starting at 16 in 2000 before dropping to 15.3 in 2009 and rebounding to 16.1 in 2015. Current estimates believe that this ratio may drop as low as 15.3 by 2027, though this estimate is broadly optimistic.
Private schools, on the other hand, appear to be driving the national trend towards a lower pupil/teacher ratio. While they started from a lower 14.5 in 2000, private schools across the country have driven their ration down to 11.9 in 2015 – a remarkable descent that may be attributable to both a rise in private school teachers and a decrease in private school students simultaneously.
Current estimates show that private schools may be able to drive their historically low pupil/teacher ratio even further down to 11.8 by 2027, assuming the current trends hold out. However, it is unclear if this continuous downward trend will be led by traditional private schools (religious or academy schools) or if semi-private, size-capped public charter schools will lead the way in the immediate future.
Overarching Takeaways Regarding the State of US Education
As a whole, the recent National Center for Education Statistics data indicates that US schools, both public and private, are well positioned for healthy growth in the immediate future. While some crucial figures such as pupil/teacher ratio continue to lag in public schools, US citizens and parents should not feel alarmed as the US education, on the whole, has become resilient in terms of maximizing its resources to benefit students, year in and year out.
The largest takeaway from this recent data release can be surmised in the belief that the face of student enrollment in the United States is changing. While the wrought number of enrolled students across elementary and secondary grade levels remains fairly constant, the demographic share of those students has begun to change significantly based upon a rise in immigration to the US as well as a broadly diversifying culture.
In the end, this government-sourced data only represents a broad overview of the direction of the US education system based on key quantitative metrics. Parties interested in gaining a more nuanced understanding of their local or state education system should seek out more localized data in order to better understand how localized influences can impact a more visible slice of the US’ student population.