Schools Adjust as Graduation Rate Finally Peaks

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 29, 2010

By Jessica Bock

Call it the last of the baby boom echo.

This graduation season, as parents and students celebrate the accomplishments of seniors at high schools across Missouri, the state is marking a milestone of its own. A record number of students are expected to graduate from high schools this year in Missouri, more than any year in the last two decades.

The peak can most likely be attributed to the children of the youngest post-World War II baby boomers. Many of those children were born in the early ’90s.

But with the last of the so-called echo boomers growing up, what had been year after year of bumper crops of college freshmen is now expected to slow.

Colleges and universities are adjusting.

“There is sort of a generational dip,” said Jeffrey Smith, a researcher at the Missouri Department of Higher Education. “But it’s not a huge drop after this – it’s five years and then it starts climbing up again.”

From 1994 to 2008, the number of high school graduates in the nation swelled by about 36 percent. Those numbers are expected to dip for the next several years.

Although most states in the country, including Illinois, reached a peak in high school graduates two years ago, Missouri is poised to hit its own this year, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Illinois peaked in 2008 with 135,100 public high school graduates statewide, with that number dropping slightly last year. This year, a peak of about 63,900 students will graduate from Missouri public schools, based on an estimate using prior graduation rates and enrollment.

In the years to come, researchers expect that Missouri and other states will see a decline in the number of public high school graduates until 2014-15. The number of Missouri high school graduates is expected to drop by about 4,800 during that period but then gradually rise again to its 2009-10 level by 2021.

In the Rockwood school district, officials suspect echo boomers have contributed to the district’s largest graduating classes in the last several years. They expect senior classes to continue to grow for the next few years but then decrease.

The district’s research has found that the average age of Rockwood residents is 42. Shirley Broz, an administrator who has studied the district’s demographics for the last 14 years, said while many residents still have children at home, most are finished having kids.

“We are seeing more and more houses without children,” Broz said.

That’s why the student population will decrease by about 800 during the next five years, she said. There are already fewer students in lower grades in the district. The decrease doesn’t worry administrators because it will be spread across 31 schools in the district, and it is taken into consideration in budget decisions.

“It wouldn’t be anything that we couldn’t overcome through our planning,” Broz said.

The number of graduates in the Parkway School District has not followed the statewide trend. That’s because the district had its boom back in the 1960s and 1970s. But enrollment is slightly declining each year or staying flat, and that same pattern is expected to continue for the next few years, said Nathan Tyson, who projects enrollment for the district.

Meanwhile, some K-12 schools say they never detected the echo, with enrollment going up or down for reasons specific to their own district.

For example, an enrollment explosion in the last 10 years in the Wentzville School District has made it the state’s fastest-growing district. But the growth can be attributed to the city’s own boom in population. Increasing enrollment from students moving into the district has slowed in recent years, but Wentzville still expects to add about 400 students in 2010-11.

Like Rockwood, Wentzville also will have its largest graduating class this year. And next year’s senior class is expected to be even bigger.

Edwardsville schools also continue to grow, said Lynda Andre, assistant superintendent for curriculum. Last school year, the district saw the largest incoming kindergarten class in years. The high school uses a building at Lewis and Clark Community College to cope with the growing number of students.

Across the St. Louis region, colleges and universities have watched their own ranks swell in recent years. Since 2005, for example, the University of Missouri-Columbia, St. Louis University and St. Louis Community College have all seen enrollment grow by more than 10 percent.

And while 2010-11 enrollment figures won’t be known for several months, many administrators are expecting another big year. At some point, however, those record college enrollments are going to end.

“We’ll see a decline in enrollment. But I don’t think we can pinpoint when it will start,” said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations for the American Council on Education.

Other factors are in play beyond the baby boom echo. Among them is a recession that has sent many jobless Americans to college for retraining and to wait for recovery in the job market. There’s also the ongoing push by the Obama administration to increase the nation’s graduation rate by 2020.

The decline, when it occurs, is going to force colleges and universities to work harder as they compete for a smaller pool of prospective students.

The University of Missouri-Columbia has recruiters in Dallas and Chicago trying to boost out-of-state enrollment to offset expected losses, said Ann Korschgen, vice provost for enrollment management.

At St. Louis Community College, administrators are pushing for more classes that will attract older adults, who often prefer classes on weeknights and weekends. “We’re looking at how we are offering our courses. Are we offering them at convenient times?” said Joanie Friend, director of enrollment management.

For many schools, coping with the decline in new students will mean focusing on areas of excellence rather than simply trying to provide a well-rounded general education, said Steven Goodman, an admissions consultant with Washington-based Top Colleges.

“Universities are going to have to make tough choices,” Goodman said. “The ones who are going to lose students are the institutions that don’t have a clear mission.”

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