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Ask an Educator: Where Are All the Students Going?

  • 5 Min Read

We explore what’s causing the decline in K-20 student enrollment and ask whether it’s an indicator of a larger retention problem resulting from how we treat our most marginalized students.



Absenteeism, Enrollment Drops … What’s Going on in Our Schools?

In May 2022, The New York Times reported that American K–12 public schools had lost at least 1.2 million students since 2020. In the same month, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that postsecondary enrollment dropped by 4.1% (or 685,000 students) this spring, contributing to a 1.3 million student enrollment drop since 2020. Fingers were understandably pointed at the global pandemic as the culprit. Many have been expecting numbers to bounce back as the world gradually returns to normal. Others have cautioned that this is the beginning of a “demographic cliff” that’s been predicted for years, the result of declining birthrates and therefore students.

It’s true that first-time, first-year student enrollment in higher education institutions bucked this trend in the spring of 2022, leading some to hope that we’re in for a slow recovery. But still others have argued that the disappearance of our K–20 students is an indicator of a much larger retention problem in our schools, the roots of which stretch back years, and that what we’re seeing is a symptom of how we treat our most marginalized students.

So is this an enrollment problem, with students (and their parents) choosing not to attend public schools and higher education institutions, electing instead to go the alternative schooling route or join the workforce? Or is this a retention problem, with our most vulnerable and underserved students finding the world of traditional education untenable? And is the solution to both problems the same?

Unpacking the Enrollment Gap

In the K–12 space, enrollment drops have impacted public schools in larger, more urban areas the most, such as New York City and Los Angeles. The contributing factors include the migration from urban to rural communities over the past few years, families deciding to homeschool their children or find alternative schooling methods with higher perceived student safety, and families delaying their children’s entrance to kindergarten. According to an article from Education Week, the impact of enrollment loss and absenteeism was mostly seen in districts that were either a) historically lower-achieving or b) in high-poverty regions.

There is also the potential that we are overestimating student absenteeism in K–12 schools. Measuring attendance became challenging during the pandemic. A study from the American Institute for Research found that some districts struggled to establish a definition of attendance when using primarily online learning models. However, others worry that our most vulnerable students are simply dropping out, as their families dealt with financial challenges and job loss.

In higher education, the main reason for the loss of students seems to come down to a simple return on investment calculation. The past few years have been a rollercoaster of financial stress and financial gain, with rising inflation and job loss being offset by new and expanding fields of work that offer new opportunities. Many undergraduate students are either deciding to join the workforce to meet their financial needs or simply not finding course offerings valuable enough to balance the financial impact of student loans. As signs of a recession loom on the horizon, things may get better—or they may get worse. The recession of the early 2010s led to a spike in enrollment as more people went back to school to combat hardships in the job market, followed by a marked drop in enrollment in 2013 as the recession waned. The greatest impact so far has been to public four-year colleges and to private for-profit institutions where affordability is low and student debt ratios are high.

What’s the Solution?

There is evidence that students’ beliefs about the value of education, particularly to their future livelihood, impact their desire to enroll or remain in school. And there is also evidence that these student beliefs are influenced by parental academic history, social-emotional status and current experiences in academic settings. More than ever, we need to ensure that our K–20 schools are engaging and empowering all student demographics and preparing them for a successful future. What does this look like?

  1. Strive for equity

    Across our K–20 schools, a disproportionate percentage of our marginalized and vulnerable students are leaving. We need to continue to strive for equity among all learners in order to combat enrollment drops.

  2. Engage, engage, engage

    How do we reengage our learners in schools and help them see the value of their academic pursuits? Are we using technology in a way that meets the needs of all students? What do we need to do to equip undergraduate students with the skills required to join the workforce? Can we integrate competency-based education to align course offerings with in-demand jobs so students find value in enrolling in courses rather than directly entering the workforce?

  3. Flexible learning models for a new era

    The schools that prospered the most during the pandemic were schools that offered the most flexible learning models, including the ability to learn remotely. How do we ensure that our students are able to engage in learning regardless of personal or environmental circumstances? How can we offer them the flexibility to be successful?

As K–20 schools combat the student enrollment challenge, bringing all students back into schools is critical. There’s no simple, singular solution, but placing the lens on equity, authentic learning and student engagement is a starting point. The time to act is now.

This article was co-written by Kassia Gandhi and Puneet Kaur.

Kassia Gandhi (née Kukurudza) is currently the Academic Affairs Director at D2L. She has worked in education for over a decade, beginning as an elementary teacher. Specializing in technology-enabled learning and teaching, Gandhi helps education organizations around the globe create effective learning ecosystems that put teachers and students at the center. Gandhi has a Master of Education with a research focus in Haitian school systems and the role of education in fragile contexts. In her free time, she acts as a mentor for Faculties of Education and volunteers with Family and Child Services, working with foster children.

Puneet Kaur is a Success Coach at D2L. In her role, she partners with K-12 educators and leaders to align Brightspace technology with their educational goals and achieve student success. She is passionate about the 21st Century models of learning that empower learners to become successful individuals in all walks of their lives. Puneet has a Masters of Education from the University of Toronto and her major research paper was “Paving a Path for Global Competencies in the Ontario K-12 curriculum.” Prior to joining D2L, she worked as a curriculum analyst, education-researcher and elementary level educator. 

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Table of Contents

  1. Unpacking the Enrollment Gap
  2. What’s the Solution?