Enrollment Projections: What Methods Work Best?
Enrollment projections are the building blocks of effective school district planning. Only with detailed and accurate projections are districts able to site schools in the best possible location, future-proof school attendance area boundaries, serve students effectively with special programs, prepare for bonds and levies, and carry out myriad other important planning activities that school district managers must juggle throughout the year.
What are enrollment projections for school districts?
Enrollment projections are predictions of future enrollments, and they are commonly prepared by state departments of education or by district personnel. These projections are often developed by comparing actual enrollments through time to identify trends and predict future enrollments. This method is commonly referred to as a Grade Progression Ratio model, and while these projections of school attendance can be quite accurate, they are missing a very important element: geography.
A Note About Enrollment Projections vs. Enrollment Forecasts
Although both enrollment projections and enrollment forecasts represent future enrollment, the methods of prediction differ. Enrollment projections are based on past and current patterns of change and the expectation that these trends will continue. For example, historical enrollment data for an elementary school show an increase from 250 students in 2017, to 265 students in 2018, and to 275 students in 2019. The average rate of change observed over the past three years could be used to prepare a projection of enrollment in 2020, assuming that the same growth trend continues.
In other words, an enrollment projection does not predict future trends or what will actually occur, but rather indicates what will happen if the past and current trends that underpin the projection continue into the future. In this sense, projections are strictly mathematical.
Enrollment forecasts are similar to projections in that they rely on past and current patterns of change, but forecasts also incorporate predictions of how trends may change in the future. It is common for practitioners to model a variety of assumptions, which capture a range of scenarios, such as decreasing enrollment due to declining fertility rates or rapid enrollment growth due to residential development and in-migration, so that they may evaluate a series of potential outcomes.
Forecasts represent the set of assumptions deemed most likely to materialize based on the analysis and decision-making of practitioners. In this sense, forecasts represent the art inherent in the science of demography. Learn more about student enrollment forecasting and their value over student enrollment projections in this blog post.
A geographic approach to enrollment projections
Enrollment projections that take the geography (or location) of students into consideration provide a different and important perspective on future enrollment. Our bottom line: when it comes to projecting enrollment, the more data, the better. This is especially true if attendance area boundaries may change in the future.
Think about this: let’s say a district obtains basic enrollment projections that accurately predict how many fourth graders will be enrolled over the next five years but doesn’t take location into account. That provides the district with important information about the number of students expected at each school under current conditions, but not where those students are likely to reside, and therefore they will be less useful when attendance area boundaries change. Relying on strictly attendance-based enrollment projections could result in:
- Imbalanced enrollment (unexpected overflowing classrooms in schools in burgeoning neighborhoods, and empty desks in schools in neighborhoods experiencing population decline)
- Student populations underserved by special programs because resources aren’t correctly allocated based on geography
- Inability to correctly plan for future enrollment when attendance areas change because of new or closing schools
However, when enrollment projections are paired with demographic trends (e.g., where residential growth and in-migration likely will occur, where the “aging in place” phenomenon is occurring) and land use studies, school districts can more accurately anticipate where in a district student enrollment is likely to change. This level of information allows school districts to:
- Anticipate class sizes, underutilization, and overcrowding across all schools.
- Foresee when enrollment may exceed capacities, with the advantage of knowing what is driving capital facility needs.
- Understand the current demographic and socioeconomic makeup of the student population and past demographic trends.
- Place special programs in schools that are geographically closest to the students who need to access the programs, while taking facility capacities into consideration.
Only when a district can access enrollment projections that account for the future location of students can the district make truly informed decisions about updating attendance area boundaries and siting new schools—two activities that are often costly, that can create tension between the community and the district, and that school districts can only accomplish with the best-possible data.
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