From the High Schools: More Troubling Demography News for New England

By Sheridan Miller

The number of new high school graduates in New England is expected to shrink by nearly 13% by 2037, according to the 10th edition of Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates, released this week by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

Published by WICHE every four years, Knocking at the College Door is a widely recognized source of data and projections more than 15 years forward on the  high school graduate populations for all 50 states.

The latest edition includes projections of high school graduates through the Class of 2037. The data include estimates for the U.S., regions, and the 50 states and D.C. for public and private high school graduates, as well as a forecast of public high school graduation rates by race/ethnicity.

Among key findings, NEBHE’s analysis of the report finds that, by 2037:

  • The number of new high school graduates in New England is expected to decline from 170,000 to 148,490, a 12.7% decrease.
  • The number of public high school graduates in the region is projected to fall by 11%, while the much smaller number of students graduating from New England’s private high schools will shrink by 23%.
  • The region’s high schoolers will continue to become increasingly diverse. Over the next 16 years, the number of white high school graduates will decline by 29%, while Black high school graduates will increase by 7%, Hispanics by 54%, Asian and Pacific Islanders by 18%, and those who identify as two or more races by 42%.

New England’s challenge with an aging population and falling birth rates has been well chronicled. With these new projections and declining state revenues (to say nothing of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the report does not calculate), the number of public and private high schoolers expected to graduate in the region calls for a closer examination. High school graduation rates are an especially important indicator of college matriculation and future success. We know that the more education a person has, the more likely they are to have a family-sustaining wage. If high school graduation rates are declining in the region, this suggests that college graduation rates will do the same and have far-reaching effects on the success of individuals and our region’s economic competitiveness.

The projected overall decline in New England high school graduates will be largely driven by significant declines in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, as each state is projected to see a decline of 18%. The initial decline in the region’s number of high school graduates is expected to be modest, with much steeper drops projected to occur after 2025.

Projected regional graduation declines from 2019 suggest:

  • From 2019 to 2020, the number of high school graduates in the region fell by 0.3%.
  • Between 2019 and 2025, this group is projected to shrink by 0.5%.
  • Between 2019 and 2030, the number of high school graduates in New England is projected to drop by 8%.
  • Between 2019 and 2037, the number of graduates is projected to drop by 12.7%.

With the number of high school graduates expected to fall significantly across New England in the next decade and a half, legislators, educators and leaders in higher education must act proactively to make sure we can mitigate the impact of these declines in our region.

Public and private high schools

Overall, New England public and private high school graduates constitute 4.5% of all high school graduates in the U.S. New England has a higher percentage of private high school graduates than the rest of the nation. In fact, even though New England comprises a small proportion of the total U.S. population, the region’s private school graduates made up 7% of all private school graduates in the U.S. in 2020. New England public school graduates made up only 4% of the nation’s total. By 2037, the region’s public high schools are projected to see an 11% decline in the number of graduates, and the data anticipates a larger decline of 23% among private high schools.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

As mentioned above, because New England’s high school student population is predominantly white, much of the average decline that is projected to occur over the next 16 years can be explained by the decline of white student graduates and the region’s increasing diversification. Between 2020 and 2037, the number of New England’s white student high school graduates is expected to decline by 29%. Nationally, the number of white graduates during this same period is expected to decline by 19%.

By comparison, the number of minoritized high school graduates in New England is expected to increase slightly across certain demographic groups, with the number of Black high school graduates rising by 7% over the next 16 years, the number of Hispanic graduates growing by 54%, Asian and Pacific Islander graduates growing by 18%, and graduates who identity as two or more races growing by 42%.

Additionally, the number of Alaska Native and American Indian high school graduates in New England is expected to decline by 35% over the next 16 years. Though this group represents a small fraction of New England’s high school student population, it is critical that education leaders and policymakers support these students.

As we continue to think about our roles in furthering equity, it is important to remember that our education system has historically been set up to cater to white students. As our student population becomes more diverse, we should focus on learning how best to support students of color while preparing educators in primary, secondary and higher education who also reflect the changing demographics of our students in the region.

Among the many significant implications of WICHE’s report for educators, legislators and higher education leaders, the projected decline in high school graduates will have long-term effects on the rates of higher education enrollment in New England and beyond. While this is bad news for the vast majority of the region’s postsecondary institutions that are enrollment-driven, the projected declines could also negatively affect our regional economy, as fewer individuals will be able to compete for good-paying jobs that require an education beyond high school and eventually fewer employers may be drawn to the region for its educated labor. Additionally, it is critical to consider the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—both in the short- and long-terms—on high school graduation rates and individuals’ decisions about whether to pursue higher education.

NEBHE will be answering questions about the implications of WICHE’s report in a webinar in the New Year. More details to come soon.

Sheridan Miller is coordinator of state policy engagement at NEBHE. 





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