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New Hampshire school enrollment drops again, continuing a 20-year decline

  • —NH Department of Education

New Hampshire Bulletin
Published: 12/2/2022 10:07:44 PM
Modified: 12/2/2022 10:07:54 PM

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on New Hampshire Bulletin.

New Hampshire public schools opened this school year with 1,845 fewer kids than they did last year — a 1.1% drop. But when it comes to the state’s enrollment trends, the change was hardly surprising.

For 20 years, attendance in New Hampshire schools has steadily declined, with no signs of a turning point. The state had the largest number of children in public school in its history in 2002: 207,684. But 2002 was the last year of growth. In 2022, the number of kids had fallen to 161,755, a 22% drop over two decades, according to the Department of Education this month.

And the proportion of children in New Hampshire has plummeted compared to other states. The state saw the largest percentage decrease of children under 18 of any state between 2010 and 2020, according to an analysis by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, at a drop of 10.6 percent.

The enrollment decline has diminished local school budgets and added to the state’s workforce shortages. The state is facing a deficiency in health care workers, from certified licensed nursing assistants to long-term care providers; one national nonprofit found that New Hampshire is likely to have around 24,400 openings in healthcare workers in the next decade. Schools and businesses have had difficulty finding employees, and the drop in school populations comes despite the state growth in overall population since 2002, from 1.26 million in 2002 to 1.39 million in 2022.

“It is important for school leaders to understand how declining enrollment numbers may be impacting their districts and how to plan accordingly for the future,” said Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut in a Nov. 15 press release accompanying the new numbers.

An easy turnaround is likely to be elusive; demographers and analysts say the dip is a result of long-term trends, many of them out of the state’s control.

Here are some of the reasons behind the decline.

NH birth rate is not keeping up with classroom sizes

At the heart of the problem is a simple math equation: There are not as many children being born in the state as there were even 10 years ago.

“What we’re seeing in New Hampshire is the number of women of childbearing age is about the same, and yet the number of births occurring has diminished,” said Ken Johnson, a professor of sociology and the senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. “So in other words, the birth rate — the number of births per woman — has diminished.”

That low birth rate is part of a national generational trend. When the state’s school populations climbed in the 1990s, many of the students were the children of baby boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964. That generation was famously large in number, and the children born from boomers filled classrooms through the 1980s and 1990s.

But subsequent generations, such as “Gen X,” born between 1965 and 1980, have not had as many children, and school-age populations in the 2000s and 2010s have decreased.

The millennial generation, who began entering their 20s in 2001, have proven to be more disinterested in children than earlier generations, a trend that has caused New Hampshire and many other states’ birth rates to drop.

Demographers say the decrease in childbirths is a result of a number of factors, from societal shifts around marriage and children to economic anxieties caused by high childcare costs and accelerated by the Great Recession. The U.S. birthrate dropped after that recession and never recovered, Johnson noted.

But with most Millenials now in their thirties, demographers say it remains to be seen how consequential the trend will be. People at childbearing age today could be simply putting off having children until later in life, suggesting that birth rates could recover after a delay. Or they could be disinterested in children entirely, suggesting the birth rate dip would be felt more long-term.

The pandemic baby bump was likely just a blip

In 2021, New Hampshire received some positive news: The state had a surge in births in the first half of the year. A study from Pew Trusts found that the state’s births increased 7 percent from 2019, making New Hampshire’s increase the fastest in the country.

State officials — from Gov. Chris Sununu to Director of the Division of Public Health Services Patricia Tilley — applauded the increase.

“We’ve certainly seen the numbers that all births in New Hampshire have gone up in 2020 and 2021,” Tilley said in an interview.

But Johnson warned that the increase appears to be short-lived. A number of states saw their birth rates decline in 2020, as the outbreak of COVID-19 and the lack of vaccines and reliable access to hospitals prompted many people to hold off pregnancy, Johnson said. In 2021, births increased for many states in the country, including New Hampshire — the result of an effective backlog.

But in 2022, the state’s birth rate appears to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, Johnson said, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Migration into state has not made up difference

For years, New Hampshire has had one dynamic that has helped its low birthrate: The state tends to attract people in their thirties and forties.

Between 2010 and 2020, seven of New Hampshire’s 10 counties saw their populations grow, according to a review of Census data by Johnson. The growth was a result of migration into those counties, Johnson’s research found.

In all, 89 percent of the state’s population gain over the decade between the 2010 Census and the 2020 Census was a result of migration, Johnson said. Data show that many of those people were in their thirties and forties, and many of them had children, Johnson said.

That migration has helped displace what demographers call “natural decreases” in population — trends where the deaths in an area outpace births. And it’s been the story for decades; two-thirds of people in New Hampshire over the age of 25 were not born in New Hampshire.

But recently, that migration hasn’t helped displace the drop-off in births.

“New Hampshire traditionally had significantly more births than deaths,” Johnson wrote in a report in 2021. “But that surplus has dwindled recently due to the growing number of seniors in the state, and because of drug-related deaths to young adults.”

The pandemic provided a short term boost to New Hampshire’s migration. New Hampshire had a net migration gain of 16,000 between 2020 to 2021 — a major jump for the state that was, in part, caused by people fleeing cities amid COVID-19. But it remains to be seen whether that migration is a long-term trend, Johnson said.

And in the end, migration can only do so much, he said.

“If that kind of migration were to continue, then the number of kids starting school or in school might go up somewhat,” he said. “But it’s never going to be as much as the number of births. We’re talking about maybe a couple extra thousand (from migration) compared to the birth of 12,000.”

Housing is a key barrier to a turnaround

If new arrivals to New Hampshire have helped grow the state’s school-aged population in the past, increasing those arrivals could be crucial to changing the school enrollment picture today.

That’s a goal that many in the state, from “Stay Work Play New Hampshire” to Sununu, have embraced. “We’ve long known New Hampshire is the best state in the country to live, work, and raise a family,” Sununu said in June, reacting to the Pew Study showing the jump in births in 2021.

But any plan to do so is going to face a major, familiar hurdle, notes Phil Sletten, research director at the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute: New Hampshire’s housing crisis. With housing available scant and prices high, the door into New Hampshire is less open for younger generations than it has been, Sletten said.

Less housing causes two problems, Sletten noted. “There’s more friction there for people to be able to move into the state and take those job opportunities that they see here,” he said.

“And there’s also been less opportunity for kids who are being educated in New Hampshire schools and graduating to either stay here versus find housing and a job somewhere else, or be able to move back here after spending some time away from New Hampshire,” he added.

The state is spending $100 million to try to boost housing construction by incentivizing towns and developers to work together, as part of the InvestNH program; lawmakers and executive councilors have approved $50 million in federal funding to create 1,472 rental units in the coming years.

Increasing the state’s housing stock and restoring a healthy housing market will not on its own reverse the bigger demographic trends holding back school growth, Sletten said. But if the market doesn’t improve, the state’s population loss has little chance to change either, he added.

“The housing constraint means that the in-migration — certainly the levels that we saw in the second half of the 20th century in New Hampshire — becomes more difficult,” Sletten said.


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