Leave it to today's school kids to trump their baby boomer parents.
A total of 49.6 million children attended public and private school in 2003, beating the previous high mark of 48.7 million — set in 1970 when the baby boom generation was in school.
The growth is largely due to all the children born in the late 1940s to early 1960s, who have since become parents themselves, the Census Bureau said Wednesday. Rising immigration played a part, too.
"You could have predicted this back in 1970 when we had all those kids," said Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau, which assesses population trends. "We knew they were going to have kids of their own. We have this classic echo effect going on."
Even if it isn't surprising, the record tally of students in the first 12 grades poses steep challenges for schools: recruiting teachers, helping children who don't speak English, keeping class sizes manageable and coming up with enough financial aid for college students.
In population rings outside urban areas and in Western states such as Nevada and California the growth has been concentrated, increasing demands on schools.
"They just really don't have the fiscal capacity to match this," said Scott Young, senior policy specialist in education for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In districts outside Atlanta, Houston and Las Vegas, enrollment has soared more than 20 percent in last five years, said Bruce Hunter, who directs lobbying for the American Association of School Administrators. His group has identified more than 400 such districts.
In other parts of the country, such as the upper Midwest, the school population has declined in some counties, Mather said. "Some of those kids are driving an hour or two on a bus to get to school because there aren't enough kids to keep local schools open," he said.
Immigration helped fueled the boom. A total of 22 percent of students had at least one foreign-born parent, including 91 percent of Asian children and 66 percent of Hispanic youngsters.
Many high-growth states have not prepared well for that racial and ethnic transformation, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. With the largest ever high school graduating class coming soon, colleges are being pressed to provide capacity for everyone while keeping tuition affordable.
"These kids are coming along at a time when — unlike the baby boomers — their chances of a middle-class life without college are almost nil," Callan said. "It's going to drive higher education policy over the next few years. This is a huge challenge."
The enrollment growth is likely to continue through this year, according to the Census Bureau report. Enrollment is expected to drop slightly through 2010 — due to a decline in births from 1991 to 1997 — but then pick up again, the Census figures show.
All the estimates are based on survey responses from a sample of the population in 2003.
Among other highlights of the school enrollment report:
- More than a quarter of the U.S. population age 3 or older — that's 75 million people — were in school nationwide in 2003. More than 17 million were in high school, and almost another 17 million were in college or graduate school.
- A total of 46 percent of high school graduates age 18 to 24 were in college in 2003. College enrollment stood at 16.6 million students, up from 14.4 million a decade earlier.
By Ben Feller