New Jersey public schools are losing students. Why? And where are they going?

October 11, 2023

Fewer and fewer children are attending public schools in New Jersey.

Across the Garden State, public school enrollment dropped by nearly 36,000 students between 2012-13 and 2022-23, according to analysis by the Asbury Park Press. The drops are causing budget strains in many places as state funding, tied to enrollment, is slashed, education officials said…

Like the country, New Jersey’s birth rates have fallen since a peak in 2007, said James Hughes, dean emeritus of Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and an expert in demographics.

“In 2007, the fertility rate was sort of a mini peak at 2.1 (births per woman), and that’s the replacement level fertility,” said Hughes. The number indicates “for that moment in time, or that year, how many children a woman would have during her lifetime.”

Maintaining replacement level fertility would keep the population steady across New Jersey; however in the years since, birth rates have dipped and continue to decline.

Across the state, the annual number of births per 1,000 people is down from 13.4 in 2007 to 10.9 in 2021, according to the state Department of Health.

In school districts across New Jersey, the results are stark in some cases, according to state Department of Education data. Enrollment at Belmar Elementary dipped 30%, from 568 to 394 students, between the 2012-13 and 2022-23 school years. Brick Township public schools lost 15% of their student population, down from 9,586 in 2012 to 8,158 by 2022. Neptune Township schools reported 22% fewer students, down 4,413 to 3,435 over the same time period.

Millennials, the cohort currently between 27 and 42 years old, are not having as many children as previous generations, Hughes said.

After the 2008 financial crisis, “people (who were) in their 20s there, which was the leading edge of millennials, they had real career setbacks. So they had a lot of ground to make up,” he said. “I think there’s just a general trend in advanced industrial nations (to have fewer children), given work patterns, two (income) working households, and… given the expense of educating a child.”

Because of declining birth rates, “if we didn’t have international migration, New Jersey would be losing population today,” Hughes said.

The Garden State has “always been an immigration gateway,” he said.

A century ago, New Jersey’s foreign-born population was far higher than it is today, he said. About 23% of the state’s residents are foreign born today; whereas in 1910, the proportion was about 30%, Hughes said.

Despite the declines in birth rates, New Jersey and the United States maintain “robust” birth rates compared to China, Japan, Italy, South Korea and most of Europe, he said.

“A lot of industrial nations have a real problem,” Hughes said.

Asbury Park Press, October 10, 2023

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