School enrollment remains below pre-pandemic highs

It increased only 1% from 2020 to 2021, with much of that coming in nursery schools and kindergartens.
First grade students, Emma Benn, left, and Tayanna Yellardy, center, and Connor Matthews, do their work during classes at Chimborazo Elementary School Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The number of students enrolled in schools rose across the nation in 2021 after an unprecedented decline caused by the coronavirus pandemic, though student populations are still millions below what they were before the pandemic struck.

The U.S. Census Bureau said this week that 73.8 million people over 3 years old were enrolled in school in 2021, a 1% increase over 2020.

Most of that increase came in nursery schools and kindergartens. There are now more children enrolled in kindergarten, 4.07 million, than in any of the past five years. The number of children in nursery schools rose to nearly 4.3 million, up about 700,000 from the year before but still half a million or so below pre-pandemic times.

The number of students enrolled in high schools has rebounded nearly to pre-pandemic levels. But the number of children enrolled in elementary schools is down to 31.8 million, about 200,000 fewer than last year. Public elementary school enrollment rose slightly last year, while private schools reported a decline in enrollment.

Colleges have suffered the largest drop in enrollment, a trend that predates, and was exacerbated by, the pandemic. Higher education enrollment hit a peak in 2011, when 20.4 million students attended college. That number has been declining almost unstopped ever since.

In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the Census Bureau reported 17.6 million students were enrolled in college, down about 600,000 from the year prior. Enrollment fell further last year, to 17.3 million.

The decade-long decline in college enrollment is evident across the rest of the American education system as well. There were nearly 5 million fewer students in school last year than there were in 2011, when the bureau reported 79 million students in schools.

The declining student population is another reflection of a longer-term trend of falling birth rates among American women. The National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that birth rates in 2020 fell to the lowest levels in half a century.

Demographers have found there are about 3 million more childless women in prime child-bearing years than would have been expected in previous generations, as parents wait until later in life to have children. That decision to delay beginning a family has led in turn to fewer births — and fewer students in schools.

At the same time, more parents are choosing to home-school their children, contributing at least somewhat to the overall school enrollment decline.

Homeschooling was on the rise even before the pandemic; data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the Department of Education found the number of homeschooled children rose from 850,000 in 1999 to almost 1.7 million in 2016, the last year for which data is available.

A separate study by the Census Bureau, as part of its pandemic-era research, found just over 11% of households with school-aged children reported homeschooling those kids in the fall of 2020, when the pandemic kept schools across the country closed.