When there are fewer students filling classroom seats and there is less money to address the space needs in areas where there is enrollment growth, the inevitable conclusion is that an education institution pursuing construction and renovation projects will have a tough go of it.

From a national perspective, that’s the situation for most schools and universities. Although some areas of the nation continue to see steady enrollment growth, the general trend for enrollment in elementary and secondary schools is one of a much slower pace of growth in student numbers and, in some areas, population declines. In higher education, some institutions have capped or reduced enrollment because of budget reductions.

Education administrators that move forward in this economic climate with construction and renovation plans are likely to confront tight budgets, dwindling resources and a community unwilling to make facility upgrades a priority.

Despite the many obstacles that can thwart facility improvement plans, many schools and universities across the nation have found various ways to acquire the needed funding and keep their projects on track—through bond elections, state assistance, grants, donations and student fees.

Boomlet Subsides

In the mid-1980s, overall U.S. enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools began to climb after about 15 years of steady decline. The increase in student numbers coincided with a realization among many educators and administrators that they needed to do a better job of addressing facility needs than their counterparts did during the 1950s and 1960s, when the surge of Baby Boomers strained the resources of districts that didn’t have the space to accommodate them.

With a more careful approach to planning that included greater involvement of the public and a greater emphasis on creating facilities that would last for generations, many school systems were able to persuade the voting public or lawmakers responsible for disbursing funds to provide money for new school buildings. K-12 enrollment in the United States rose throughout the 1990s into the early 2000s, and spending on school facilities rose each year as districts sought to increase capacity for their education programs.

But beginning in the early 2000s, the so-called baby boomlet slowed, and national student enrollment numbers stagnated. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), pre-K to 12 enrollment, after reaching 55.3 million in 2006, showed a slight decline in 2007 for the first time in nearly 20 years. National enrollment figures from 1986 to 1996 rose 14 percent; from 1996 to 2006, the increase was 7.3 percent. Projections from 2006 to 2016 show enrollment increasing only 4.3 percent.

Overall enrollment in the elementary and middle grades showed declines earlier. Enrollment in grades pre-K to 8 reached 39 million in 2002, then began several years of decline. As those students move through the system, the declining numbers can be seen in the number of high school students. Enrollment in grades 9 to 12, which had been climbing since 1990, reached about 16.5 million in 2007, but NCES projections show those numbers falling for several years after that.

The declines are more pronounced when the numbers are broken down by region. Public school student enrollment in Northeast states generally has been declining since a high of about 8.3 million in 2002, and NCES projections show the numbers falling to 7.6 million in 2018. Midwest states’ enrollment numbers also have been declining since 2002, and aren’t projected to show an increase until 2014. On the other hand, enrollment in the South region has increased every year in the 2000s, and is projected to keep climbing until at least 2019.