Annual Condition of Education Shows Historic Decline in Total Public School Enrollment Between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020
May 31, 2022
Decrease in enrollment during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic erased a decade of steady enrollment growth in nation’s public schools
WASHINGTON (May 31, 2022)—Total public elementary and secondary school enrollment for prekindergarten through grade 12 students declined 3 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020, erasing a decade of steady growth, according to The Condition of Education 2022, an annual report to Congress released today by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This was the largest single-year decline in total public school enrollment since 1943. This decrease in enrollment during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was concentrated in lower grades. Looking specifically at the youngest children, overall enrollment rates (across public and private schools) fell 13 percentage points for 3- to 4-year-olds (from 54 to 40 percent).
“The Condition of Education is part of a 150-year tradition at NCES, and provides historical and contextual perspective on key measures of educational progress to Congress and the American public,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr. “This year’s report reaffirms the mission of the National Center for Education Statistics to provide the nation with data on the condition and progress of education, and sheds new light on the major disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic for all levels of education.”
The Condition of Education summarizes the latest data on education in the United States and contains key indicators on all levels of education (prekindergarten through postsecondary), labor force outcomes, and international comparisons. The indicators summarize important developments and trends in education using the latest statistics. The Condition of Education includes a total 88 indicators, 52 of which were updated this year, on the condition of education in the United States at all levels and uses data from across NCES and from other sources to help inform policymakers and the public about significant trends and topics in education.
Annual indicators include pandemic-era data for school enrollments from early childhood through postsecondary education, as well as postsecondary finance data and labor force outcomes. New, pre-pandemic analyses are also available for high school course completion data and NAEP long-term trend assessment performance. In addition to annual indicators, this year’s Condition features a closer look at how the pandemic might have influenced education choices and school enrollment.
The full report can be viewed at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe. The Condition of Education is a compilation of statistical information collected and assembled from other statistical products. For more information on the data sources, please visit https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/sources.
Preprimary, Elementary, and Secondary Education
- Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the total public elementary and secondary school enrollment for prekindergarten through grade 12 students dropped 3 percent, from 50.8 million students to 49.4 million students. This decrease in enrollment during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic brought enrollment back to 2009 levels (49.4 million), erasing a decade of steady enrollment growth. It was the largest single-year decline in total public school enrollment since 1943.
Whereas the 1943 drop—during World War II—was concentrated among public school students in grades 9 through 12, the 2020 drop was concentrated among those in grades preK through 8. Specifically, between fall 2009 and fall 2019, enrollment in preK through grade 8 increased by 3 percent (from 34.4 million to 35.6 million) before dropping 4 percent to 34.1 million students in fall 2020. In contrast, enrollment in grades 9 through 12 increased 2 percent between fall 2009 (15.0 million) and fall 2019 (15.2 million) and continued to increase in fall 2020 (15.3 million).
Enrollment rates for 5-year-olds fell 6 percentage points from 2019 to 2020 (from 91 to 84 percent), while enrollment rates for 3- to 4-year-olds fell 13 percentage points (from 54 to 40 percent).
Public charter school enrollment more than doubled between fall 2009 and fall 2019. Enrollment in public charter schools grew from 1.6 million students in fall 2009 to 3.4 million students in fall 2019. At the same time, the number of students attending traditional public schools decreased by 0.5 million (from 47.5 million to 47.0 million students). As a result of these two concurrent trends, the percentage of all public school students who attended public charter schools increased from 3 to 7 percent over this period.
The NAEP long-term trend assessments showed improvement in reading and mathematics achievement at ages 9 and 13 between the 1970s and 2020. However, average scores for 9-year-olds were not measurably different for either subject in 2020 compared with the previous assessment in 2012. For 13-year-olds, the average scores were lower in 2020 than in 2012 for both subjects, marking the first time reading or mathematics scores for this age group declined between assessments.
- Undergraduate enrollment was declining before the pandemic (a decrease of 0.9 million students, or 5 percent, over a period of 10 years between 2009 and 2019), but during the pandemic it decreased by 0.7 million students (or 4 percent) between 2019 and 2020 alone.
For male and female students, postsecondary enrollment patterns exhibited similar trends from 2009 to 2019 (both decreasing by 5 percent). However, from 2019 to 2020, female enrollment fell 2 percent, while male enrollment fell 7 percent.
By contrast, total enrollment in postbaccalaureate programs (such as master’s and doctoral programs) increased by 8 percent between 2009 and 2019 (from 2.8 million to 3.1 million students). It continued to increase between 2019 and 2020, by another 2 percent (67,300 students).
Based on reports from adults who had household members planning to take classes from a postsecondary institution in fall 2021, plans for postsecondary education were disrupted to a lesser extent than they were one year earlier in the pandemic.
Specifically, 44 percent of adults reported that there was no change for any household member in their fall 2021 plans for postsecondary classes, compared with 28 percent who reported no change to fall 2020 plans.
Despite this improvement, it is worth noting that a majority of adults in households with prospective postsecondary students reported some change to fall 2021 plans due to the pandemic, over a year after its emergence in the United States. Nearly one third (32 percent) reported that the classes would be taught in different formats in the fall (e.g., formats of instruction would change from in-person to online), 16 percent reported that all plans to take classes in the fall had been canceled for at least one household member, and 12 percent reported that at least one household member would take fewer classes in the fall
Population Characteristics and Economic Outcomes
- In 2019–20, postsecondary institutions conferred about 5.1 million awards, ranging from certificates below the associate’s level to doctor’s degrees. At all award levels, the number conferred was higher in 2019–20 than in 2009–10. Between 2010 and 2021, educational attainment among 25- to 29-year-olds increased at each attainment level. During this period, the percentage who had completed at least high school increased from 89 to 94 percent, the percentage with an associate’s or higher degree increased from 41 to 49 percent, and the percentage with a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 32 to 39 percent.
In March 2021, roughly one year into the coronavirus pandemic, the employment rate of 25- to 34-year-olds was higher for those with higher levels of educational attainment. For example, the employment rate ranged from 53 percent for those who had not completed high school to 86 percent for those with a bachelor’s or higher degree.
Compared with 2010, employment rates were higher in 2021 only for those with a bachelor’s or higher degree (84 vs 86 percent). For those who had completed high school and those with some college, employment rates increased from 2010 to 2019, but these gains were reversed during the coronavirus pandemic (to rates of 68 and 75 percent, respectively).
- In 2019, U.S. 4th- and 8th-graders scored in the top 25 percent of participating education systems in both mathematics and science in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a principal agency of the U.S. Federal Statistical System, is the statistical center of the U.S. Department of Education and the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. NCES, located within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), fulfills a congressional mandate to collect, collate, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.
The Report on the Condition of Education is a congressionally mandated annual report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Using the most recent data available from NCES and other sources, the report contains key indicators on the condition of education in the United States at all levels, from prekindergarten through postsecondary, as well as labor force outcomes and international comparisons. There are core indicators that are updated every year and spotlight indicators that provide in-depth analyses on topics of interest to education systems, policymakers, researchers, and the public
National Center for Education Statistics
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