Skip Navigation
small NCES header image
Projections of Education Statistics to 2014, published September 2005.

Appendix A: Projection Methodology

The general procedure for Projections of Education Statistics to 2014 was to express the variable to be projected as a percent of a “base” variable. These percents were then projected and applied to projections of the “base” variable. For example, the number of 18 year old college students was expressed as a percent of the 18 year old population for each year from 1972 through 2002. This enrollment rate was then projected through the year 2014 and applied to projections of the 18 year old population from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Enrollment projections are based primarily on population projections. Projections of high school graduates and earned degrees conferred are based primarily on enrollment projections.

Exponential smoothing and multiple linear regression are the two major projection techniques used in this publication. Single exponential smoothing is used when the historical data have a basically horizontal pattern. On the other hand, double exponential smoothing is used when the time series is expected to change linearly with time. In general, exponential smoothing places more weight on recent observations than on earlier ones. The weights for observations decrease exponentially as one moves further into the past. As a result, the older data have less influence on these projections. The rate at which the weights of older observations decrease is determined by the smoothing constant selected.

Formula 1


P = projected value

Alpha = smoothing constant (0 < Alpha < 1)

Xt = observation for time t

This equation illustrates that the projection is a weighted average based on exponentially decreasing weights. For a high smoothing constant, weights for earlier observations decrease rapidly. For a low smoothing constant, decreases are more moderate. Projections of enrollments and public high school graduates are based on a smoothing constant of Alpha = 0.4.

The farther apart the observations are spaced in time, the more likely it is that there are changes in the underlying social, political, and economic structure. Since the observations are on an annual basis, major shifts in the underlying process are more likely in the time span of just a few observations than if the observations were available on a monthly or weekly basis. As a result, the underlying process for annual models tends to be less stable from one observation to the next. Another reason for using high smoothing constants for some time series is that most of the observations are fairly accurate, because most observations are population values rather than sample estimates. Therefore, large shifts tend to indicate actual changes in the process rather than noise in the data.

Multiple linear regression is also used in making projections of college enrollment and earned degrees conferred. This technique is used when it is believed that a strong relationship exists between the variable being projected (the dependent variable) and independent variables. However, this technique is used only when accurate data and reliable projections of the independent variables are available.

The functional form primarily used is the multiplicative model. When used with two independent variables, this model takes the form:

Formula 2

This equation can easily be transformed into the linear form by taking the natural log (ln) of both sides of the equation:

Formula 2

The multiplicative model has a number of advantages. Research has found that it is a reasonable way to represent human behavior. Constant elasticities are assumed, which means that a 1 percent change in lnX will lead to a given percent change in lnY. This percent change is equal to 1. And the multiplicative model lends itself easily to “a priori” analysis because the researcher does not have to worry about units of measurement when specifying relationships. In fact, the multiplicative model is considered the standard in economic analyses. For additional information, see Forecasting: Methods and Applications by Spiro Makridakis, Steven C. Wheelwright, and Rob J. Hyndman (John Wiley and Sons, 1998, p. 607).



All projections are based on underlying assumptions, and these assumptions determine projection results to a large extent. It is important that users of projections understand the assumptions to determine the acceptability of projected time series for their purposes. Descriptions of the primary assumptions upon which the projections of time series are based are presented in table A1.

For some projections, low, middle, and high alternatives are shown. These alternatives reveal the level of uncertainty involved in making projections, and they also point out the sensitivity of projections to the assumptions on which they are based.

Two of the factors involved in the higher education enrollment projections are household income, which represents ability to pay, and an age-specific unemployment rate, which acts as a proxy for opportunity costs faced by students. During a pessimistic economy, both household income and the ability to pay are likely to decline, having a negative impact on higher education enrollment. However, during a pessimistic economy, unemployment rates would likely to increase, with the result that the estimated opportunity costs will be lower. This could have a positive impact on higher education enrollment, as the students face less attractive alternatives. This will be apparent in the short term, resulting in a potential reversal in the expected pattern across the alternative economic scenarios. As a result, the high alternative projections will be lower than the low alternative projections. However, in the long term, the effect of the per capita income variable dominates the effects of the unemployment rate. This results in a pattern where the high alternative projections are greater than the low alternative projections.

Many of the projections in this publication are demographically based on U.S. Census Bureau middle series projections of the population by age. The population projections developed by the U.S. Census Bureau are based on the 2000 census and the middle series assumptions for the fertility rate, internal migration, net immigration, and mortality rate. For a discussion on the intercensal population estimates, see appendix C.

The future fertility rate assumption, which determines projections of the number of births, is one key assumption in making population projections. This assumption plays a major role in determining population projections for the age groups enrolled in nursery school, kindergarten, and elementary grades. The effects of the fertility rate assumption are more pronounced toward the end of the projection period, while the immigration assumptions affect all years.

For enrollments in secondary grades and college, the fertility assumption is of no consequence, since all the population cohorts for these enrollment ranges have already been born. For projections of enrollments in elementary schools, only middle series population projections were considered. Projections of high school graduates are based on projections of the percent of grade 12 enrollment that are high school graduates. Projections of associate’s, bachelor's, master’s, doctor’s, and first professional degrees are based on projections of college age populations and college enrollment, by sex, attendance status, level enrolled by student, and type of institution. Projections of college enrollment are also based on disposable income per capita and unemployment rates. The projections of elementary and secondary teachers are based on education revenue receipts from state sources and enrollments. The projections of expenditures of public elementary and secondary schools and public degree-granting institutions are based on enrollments and projections of disposable income per capita and various revenue measures of state and local governments. Projections of disposable income per capita and unemployment rates were obtained from the company Global Insight, Inc. Many additional assumptions were made in projecting these variables.

Limitations of Projections

Projections of time series usually differ from the final reported data due to errors from many sources. This is because of the inherent nature of the statistical universe from which the basic data are obtained and the properties of projection methodologies, which depend on the validity of many assumptions. Therefore, alternative projections are shown for most statistical series to denote the uncertainty involved in making projections. These alternatives are not statistical confidence limits, but instead represent judgments made by the authors as to reasonable upper and lower bounds. The mean absolute percentage error is one way to express the forecast accuracy of past projections. This measure expresses the average value of the absolute value of errors in percentage terms. For example, the mean absolute percentage errors of public school enrollment in grades K–12 for lead times of 1, 2, 5, and 10 years were 0.3, 0.5, 1.1, and 2.6 percent, respectively. For more information on mean absolute percentage errors, see table A2.


Would you like to help us improve our products and website by taking a short survey?

YES, I would like to take the survey


No Thanks

The survey consists of a few short questions and takes less than one minute to complete.