IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

School enrollment plummeted in 2020, data shows

From preschool to college, enrollment of students of all ages dropped during the pandemic.
Image: A principal surveys a classroom in preparation for the start of school on Sept. 2, 2021.
A principal surveys a classroom in New York City in preparation for the start of school on Sept. 2. The percentage of students younger than 35 years old fell to its lowest level in more than 20 years.Michael Loccisano / Getty Images file

School enrollment declined by nearly 3 million students in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, the largest decrease in more than two decades, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The decline, from about 76 million students in 2019 to about 73 million last year, stemmed from steep drops among younger children in preschool and those attending two-year colleges. Enrollment remained relatively unchanged among elementary school students, at about 32 million, and among high school students, at about 16 million.

While schooling is required for those of elementary and high school age, preschool is optional. Andrew Bacher-Hicks, an assistant professor of education policy at Boston University, said the drops in preschool enrollment reflect a reality for many parents who had to decide whether preschool’s benefits were worth it in the middle of a pandemic.

“The parents might have health concerns over sending young children [in person] who can't be vaccinated,” Bacher-Hicks said. “On the other hand, if pre-K is all virtual, the parents might have concerns about ‘what am I getting out of sending my 4-year-old to a virtual pre-K?’”

Kindergarten enrollment nationally fell from 4.1 million in 2019 to about 3.7 million last year, census data shows, a decline of about 9 percent. The drop in preschool enrollment was far greater, from 4.7 million to 3.5 million, a decrease of 25 percent.

Accounting for race and ethnicity, Hispanic children had the largest decline in pre-K enrollment, at 33 percent, while white students had the smallest, at 20 percent. Black enrollment also fell by 28 percent, while Asian students’ enrollment dropped by 32 percent.

Meanwhile, college enrollment fell to its lowest level since 2007, fueled by a drop in students at two-year colleges, where enrollment declined to its lowest level in 20 years.

And while enrollment for elementary and high school students remained relatively unchanged, some cities, such as Chicago, had declines in children’s population, with Chicago Public Schools enrollment falling by more than 24,000 students since the pandemic began.

Bacher-Hicks chalked up many of the changes to the pandemic.

“There’s just a lot more movement that’s happening now during the pandemic, either out of the education system entirely or from the public education system to different alternatives,” he said.