Study Predicts Decrease in ND High School Grads

August 22, 2011 | Grand Forks Herald |  Link to article

Fewer students will wander the halls of North Dakota's high schools over the next decade, a recent study by a national think tank predicts.

The Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy projects the number of high school graduates in the state will decrease 15.4 percent by 2020.

"We're seeing a natural demographic shift," said Larry Nybladh, superintendent of the Grand Forks school district, referring to the state's aging population.

Wayne G. Sanstead, state superintendent of public instruction, calls the CLASP data "simply conjecture."

He predicts the high school-age population will grow as a result of the oil boom in the western third of the state. Families moving to the region for energy jobs are bring their children with them if they can find housing, he said. Resident birth rates are also up.

"We're in growth mode, which is wonderful news for the state," Sanstead said.

Comparing numbers

CLASP analyzed the most recent number of North Dakota's high school graduates and the number of students behind them in school to make its projection, said Vickie Choitz, senior policy analyst for the center.

In the 2004-2005 school year, 8,041 students graduated from North Dakota's high schools. This has decreased to 7,296 in the 2009-2010 school year. The policy center expects the number of high school graduates to fall to 6,172 by 2019-2020.

"Their numbers are far out," Sanstead said. "They're shooting from the hip on this one."

The trend will be going in the opposite direction, according to Sanstead. His department predicts increases of up to 1,400 students by 2014. The state is making plans for rapid enrollment growth, he said.

"This will have an overwhelming impact on cities, counties, and school districts," Sanstead said.

GF numbers

Nybladh has conducted research of his own and his numbers sync up with the trend proposed by the policy center.

Enrollment in Grand Forks peaked in 1970 with about 12,700 students registered in kindergarten through 12th grade. The number of graduating seniors totaled 980. In 2010, 6,750 students were enrolled in the school system. There were 520 graduating seniors. That is a 52 percent decrease in 40 years for a large, urban district.

Smaller, more rural school districts have seen higher decreases. Some have seen decreases in enrollment of up to 80 percent, Nybladh said. Sanstead confirms this is true, but argues for the growth out west.

Filling jobs

The policy center maintains fewer high school students could have negative effects on the state. Fewer high school graduates translate to fewer college students.

"If the state is going to continue to have a strong economy, it must fill jobs," Choitz said.

These jobs require educated workers. By 2018, more than two-thirds of jobs in North Dakota will require some form of post-secondary training, the policy center predicts.

On the other hand, some high-paying jobs available in the western part of the state do not require a high school diploma, said Sanstead, which may account for fewer graduates as some students drop-out early to pursue those jobs.

National trends

Overall 31 states and the District of Columbia will see a decrease of some sort, ranging from 0.5 to 24 percent for the next decade.

Louisiana and Vermont will see graduate numbers decrease almost 20 percent in this time period. The District of Columbia is expected to experience of a decrease of 24 percent.

Over all, the total number of students graduating each year in the United States is expected to remain flat.

This flattening will lead to the United States' workforce falling behind international competitors Choitz said. In order to keep with demand, the United States must invest more in higher education and employment training, she said.

"If we're going to keep up globally, we're going to need an educated workforce," she said.

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