Predicting the Future of High School Graduates: WICHE Data

Enrollment in America’s institutions of higher education has been an ongoing point-of-concern for a number of years. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent headcount decreases have only heightened the stress related to the future of enrollment in colleges and universities. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) estimates that total postsecondary enrollment fell by almost 938K students (-5.1%) nationally from fall 2019 to fall 2021. Two-year public colleges have been hit the hardest, collectively seeing more than 706K fewer students (-13.2%) enrolled in fall 2021 when compared to fall 2019. By comparison, public four-year universities were down 251K students (-3.8%) from fall 2020 to fall 2021.

While official fall 2022 semester enrollments are still being processed, we wanted to kick-off a blog series that will carry through the rest of this semester as we examine student enrollments from a variety of angles. In this blog post, we will take a look at the projections for high school graduates found in the most recent version of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s (WICHE) Knocking at the College Door report. 

What might HS graduation look like in 2037?

Viewed by many as the de facto source for K-12 enrollment and high school graduation projections, WICHE’s 10th edition of the Knocking at the College Door report provided state-by-state annual predictions through the 2037 academic year. Why 2037? WICHE’s report is updated every 4 years, with the last report published in late 2020. The last full year of available data prior to the 2020 publication was AY2019, and the projections observe a typical 18-year student life-cycle from birth to high school graduation. WICHE’s high school graduate predictions incorporate historical data for public and private school enrollments, high school graduates, and birth-rate data in the United States.

General Findings in WICHE Report

  • Between 2000 and 2019, the United States saw a 32.2% increase in high school graduates, rising from 2.85M to 3.77M.
  • The national trend of increasing high school graduates is estimated to continue through 2025. The 3.77M graduates in 2019 is projected to rise to 3.93M in 2025, which would be a 4.2% increase.
  • However, an 11-year downward trend from 2026 to 2037 is likely, with 3.52M high school graduates predicted in 2037. That would represent a -10.4% decrease from 2026 to 2037, dropping production of high school graduates to its lowest levels since 2015.
  • The primary cause for such a dramatic decline is directly related to the reduction in annual births. From 2005 to 2019, there was a -9.5% decline in the total number of births annually from 4.14M to 3.75M. 
High School Graduates Projections
  • Ten states in America produce 56% of all high school graduates. The highest-producing states in 2019 were California (485K), Texas (374K), and Florida (220K), accounting for 28.6% of all high school graduates that year. Based on projections, these three states will account for 1.15M high school graduates in 2025, representing 29.2% of the total. By 2037, CA, TX, and FL will account for just over 30% of all high school graduates produced in America.
  • When comparing HS graduate production in 2019 to the projections for 2037, 74% of the states in America (37 out of 50) are projected to graduate fewer high school graduates in 2037 than they did in 2019. Illinois is predicted to have the largest percentage decrease of high school graduates at -24.2% (from 151,980 to 115,180), while California is predicted to lose the largest number from 2019 to 2037 (from 484,630 to 410,860, or -15.2%).
  • Out of the 13 states predicted to have increases over this time period, five are projected to have double-digit increases in graduates: North Dakota at 33.6% (from 7,260 to 9,700), Florida at 17.9% (from 219,550 to 258,920), Nevada at 15% (from 29,670 to 34,130), Idaho at 14% (from 20,430 to 23,280), and South Dakota at 13% (9,120 to 10,310). Aside from Florida, the other double-digit increase states are projected to have just over 77K graduates in 2037, which would account for just 2.2% of all high school graduates in 2037.
  • Regionally, six of the states with increases are located in the west region of the country, five are located in the south region of the country, and two are located in the midwest region. None of the states located in the northeast region are predicted to have an increase in high school graduates.
  • The visualization below shows the state-by-state trends. Inside each state box is the percentage increase/decrease that state is projected to experience when comparing 2019 productivity to predicted productivity in 2037. The color of the box is determined percentage lost/gained, ranging from Illinois at -24.2% in the darkest shade of red to North Dakota at 33.6% in the darkest shade of blue. 
  • Texas is at 4.3% growth, putting the state 8th overall, with an increase from 374,290 in 2019 to 390,280 in 2037. The projected highest productivity for Texas is in 2033 with 417,880 high school graduates, which would be an 11.6% gain from 2019 to 2033.

NOTES: The location of state boxes is loosely associated with geographic location in the United States. This grid is meant to serve as an organizational structure only, as opposed to an accurate map. Hovering over each state will show the year-over-year projected change from 2019 vs 2037 for that state. Any annual percentage that is an increase from that state’s 2019 high school graduation levels will be shaded in blue above the horizontal “0%” line, and any percentage that is a decrease will be shaded in red below the horizontal “0%” line.

So What?

The high school graduate pipeline is one of the most crucial data points to consider as policymakers, higher education leaders, economic developers, etc. make plans for the future. Based on the WICHE projections, the class of 2026 will likely serve as the beginning of a long-term decline in high school graduates, as the “birth dearth” that started during the Great Recession in 2008 will start to impact the number of HS graduates in the US. Leading indicators such as birth rates, elementary school enrollment trends, dual credit, student migration patterns, and other variables will be examined in the coming blog posts as we seek a deeper understanding of the potential effects of these indicators on future enrollments in higher education institutions.

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