UConn Professor: Schools Face New Challenges as Enrollment Shrinks

A group of high school students walking in a hallway. (iStock Photo)
A group of high school students walking in a hallway. (iStock Photo)

Connecticut is facing a steady decline in its school-age population, with the decline largest among high school students. For reasons ranging from a decline in birth rates as people have fewer children, to people leaving the state for job opportunities, the state is predicted to have the nation’s third-fastest decrease in enrolled high-school students over the next 10 years, with 5,400 fewer graduating each year.

The shrinking pool of high school students is expected to affect Connecticut school districts in many ways, from planning for school buildings, to class size, and even decisions about where students will attend school. Shaun Dougherty, assistant professor of education policy and leadership at the Neag School of Education, and an affiliated faculty member in UConn’s Department of Public Policy, recently discussed the potential impact with UConn Today.

Dougherty, a former high school mathematics teacher and assistant principal, conducts research on how PreK-12 policies and programs affect student outcomes, and how this is related to race, class, gender, and disability. His work has appeared in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and Education Finance and Policy. He has also conducted research for the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University; the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools; and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Q. Is the decline in student enrollment going to affect some school districts more than others?

A. Yes. I imagine that especially for smaller districts who have always valued their autonomy and local feel, this decline could be quite impactful. For instance, providing schooling includes huge fixed operational costs, including buildings and teaching staff, that are relatively more expensive to maintain when student enrollment declines. Also, the state fiscal situation, and expected reductions in the amount of money disbursed to districts for education, may increase pressure to find cost-saving solutions, including regionalization.

Q. Apparently districts in other New England states have been consolidating schools for some time. Yet historically, for many communities in Connecticut retaining local control remains important. Is that about to change?

A. Other New England states, Massachusetts and Maine especially, as well as upstate New York, have been grappling with declining enrollments in small districts for quite some time. There too, a tradition of local control has been challenged by these trends. Many districts have had regional associations for high school education in these same places, so it is somewhat surprising that the desire to maintain smaller, local institutions has been so strong. Whether this is all about to change is an open question. Right now Connecticut is having fiscal difficulties, and that, coupled with declining enrollments, may start to force the hands of municipalities as they make fiscal decisions. In my experience, general preferences are often challenged once folks are faced with a choice between giving up one thing or another.

Q. Is merging or regionalizing neighboring high schools a good way to address enrollment declines?

A. There are many considerations in regionalizing schools. For instance, while there may be substantial savings in overhead and infrastructure costs, it’s also likely that transportation costs will rise, as well as average bus ride times for students. Yet overall, creating regional schools seems a reasonable solution as compared to simply closing one high school and sending students to a different high school where the sending town doesn’t necessarily have a role in governance. Another consideration is whether having a class that is too small can pose as much of a challenge as having one that is too big. To that end, regionalization allows for the maintenance (or possibility) of more optimal class sizes, while also reducing the average cost of operating the school.

Q. A decline in enrollment typically results in smaller class sizes and has significant impact on teachers. Are there ways for school districts to reduce teachers and school staff to match the pace of student enrollment?

A. Declining enrollment certainly changes the demand for teachers. But paradoxically, reducing the teacher workforce may lead to a jump in class size. In other words, losing teachers and administrators happens in a lumpier and less fluid manner as enrollment declines. Typically, however, resources like school counselors, psychologists, or other specialists get pared down as well, and then are shared across buildings (or even across districts) as a way to manage costs.

Q. Is updated legislation needed to help districts that want to consolidate? Do any incentives already exist to promote regional high schools – such as energy cooperatives, health insurance options, or increases in state aid?

A. I am not aware of existing incentives that are in place to encourage or facilitate the creation of regional districts. Certainly recent cuts in state aid to districts will create financial constraints that could encourage such joining of forces. Going forward, the state could encourage such regional mergers by dangling more aid to facilitate these transitions. I also think it’s reasonable to assume that laws could be passed that could help regional districts navigate provision of insurance.

Q. How is the decrease in the number of high school students likely to affect the state’s public colleges and universities?

A. The effects are not likely to be immediate. Already not all high school graduates go on to college, so it’s hard to know what the impact of enrollment declines at the high school level will mean for college enrollment. But if the same trend of declining enrollment is occurring in neighboring states, we could see an incentive for cross-state agreements related to tuition and fees for out-of-state students as a way to maintain a larger supply of college applicants.