School totals to peak in 9 years

A shift in the age of residents living within the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. is projected to slow enrollment growth and to eventually contribute to a decline in the number of local K-12 students at the end of the decade.

Jerome McKibben, a demographer who works out of South Carolina, presented a study this week to the BCSC school board detailing how demographic forecasts could affect the public school district’s enrollment through the 2025-26 school year.

McKibben predicts that the district will reach its 10-year enrollment peak in the 2024-25 school year, when an estimated 11,964 students will attend a BCSC school. That would be about 700 more students than this year’s enrollment of 11,251.

A variety of different factors will affect the district’s enrollment growth, McKibben said, including the size of each grade cohort and the flow of residents moving in and out of the district. Each of those factors are tied to the overall age structure of the district, he said.

Between the current and 2016-17 school years, the district is expected to grow by about 1.53 percent, according to McKibben’s forecast. Growth will continue, but the rate of increase will drop slightly, a factor that the demographer contributes — in large part — to growing high school graduating cohorts.

The loss of graduating seniors from the district’s enrollment count will be balanced out by incoming students — either kindergartners beginning their first year of school or students moving in from another district — which will enable BCSC to maintain its current trend of increasing enrollment for the next decade.

But as the graduating classes get bigger each year, it will become more difficult for the influx of new students to maintain that balance, McKibben said, which means the rate of enrollment growth will gradually decrease.

For example, an estimated 856 students will graduate from one of the three BCSC high schools in 2017, but the district is still expected to increase its enrollment by 0.89 percent for the 2017-18 school year.

But in 2018, 872 students are expected to graduate from a Columbus high school, which means the district’s total growth will only be 0.77 percent — 0.12 percentage points lower than the previous year.

McKibben compared this process to a bucket of water with a hole in the bottom. As long as water is being poured into the bucket faster than it is leaking out of the bottom, then the bucket will continue to fill up. However, if the hole in the bottom gets bigger, the bucket begins to fill up more slowly.

In enrollment terms, that means the influx of new students must be able to keep up with the growing size of graduating classes. When that influx of new students does not match the exodus of graduating seniors, then the enrollment growth rate slows down.

In general, McKibben estimates that BCSC will gradually get older, which means the elementary and middle schools — which are experiencing growth right now — will start to see enrollment decreases sooner than the district overall as students move to their next level of education.

District high schools, in contrast, will see declining enrollment in the immediate future but will eventually start to increase as more students reach high school age.

The population and enrollment forecast is also dependent on larger assumptions about Bartholomew County as a whole, McKibben said.

For example, McKibben said the interest rates for a 30-year, fixed-home mortgage must stay below 5 percent to encourage families with children to move into Bartholomew County. If that interest rate goes up, home sales will decrease, which means fewer families will move into the district and enroll their children in a local public school, cutting back on the district’s level of in-migration, McKibben said.

Similarly, the housing turnover rate within the district must also stay level for McKibben’s forecast to be accurate.

Residents older than 55 who no longer have children in school are the most likely to sell their homes because they want to downsize, McKibben said. When they move to smaller homes, they make room for new families with school-age children to move into the district, he said.

However, growth in each individual elementary school district will not be even because of diversity in age structure. Some areas of the city will see a large number of families moving in, which means more students will enroll in the elementary schools in those areas. In contrast, aging areas where there are fewer school-age children will result in declining enrollment for some elementary schools.

The effects of that uneven population distribution have been stemmed slightly by the introduction of Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea and Lincoln campuses, which are open to students from all areas of the district, McKibben said.

However, now that the growth of those two schools is beginning to level off, McKibben said BCSC administrators might want to consider redrawing the district lines in the next couple of years to ensure the student population is distributed evenly throughout each of the 11 elementary schools.

Aside from long-term planning for the local public school district, Superintendent John Quick said McKibben’s demographic study could be used by multiple agencies in the city to make predictions about population and economic growth.

The superintendent said the study has already been shared with the city government, and local economic leaders will also have an opportunity to review McKibben’s data to help in their economic planning for the city.

Study highlights

The major takeaways from Jerome McKibben’s demographic study include:

  • An enrollment peak of 11,964 students in the 2024-2025 school year
  • A general increase in the age of residents living within the BCSC district over the next decade for both school-age and adult residents
  • Steady levels of in-migration to spur enrollment growth
  • Uneven distribution of the elementary school populations, which could be cause for redistricting
Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.