Fewer high school grads in jobs pipeline

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Massachusetts is facing a serious brain drain. Over the next 15 years, forecasters expect the state’s school-age population to shrink and the number of high school graduates to plunge by as much as 15 percent.

The demographic data represents sobering news for a high-cost state with few natural resources aside from the brain power of its residents. The shrinking pool of graduates also lends even greater urgency to the state’s ongoing debate over dropouts, college preparedness, and the achievement gap. It means Massachusetts school districts, colleges, and businesses will have to learn to do more with less home-grown talent.

“Our core competitive advantage is contained between the ears of our residents. To the extent these people are dying or moving away and not being replaced, that edge vanishes,” says Michael Goodman, director of economic and public policy research at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.

Suzanne Bump, the Patrick administration’s secretary of labor and workforce development, sees the decline in high school graduates as part of a larger economic problem facing the state. “We currently lack a sufficient, vibrant workforce,” she says. “The fact that there are going to be even fewer kids coming up just adds to the problem.”

A report released in March by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education indicated the number of high school graduates in Massachusetts will hit a peak this year of nearly 74,000. But the combination of a declining birth rate (down 20 percent since 1990) and an outmigration of residents to the West and South is expected to shrink the state’s class of graduating seniors over the next 15 years. By the commission’s estimate, the number of high school graduates is expected to drop to just under 63,000 by 2022. (See map.)

The forecast is based on actual births through 2004 and assumes existing immigration and migration trends continue indefinitely into the future. To the extent those trends or the state’s birth rate changes, so would the projections.

Internal projections of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also predict a downward trend in students and graduates. The agency is currently forecasting that the total K-12 population in Massachusetts will shrink 8.2 percent by 2017.

Nationally, the Western Interstate Commission study indicates the output of graduates will decline moderately through 2013 before growth resumes, fueled primarily by population growth in the West and the South. By contrast, the Midwest and particularly the Northeast regions are expected to see substantial, prolonged reductions in graduates.

The shrinking class of graduates will be accompanied by a dramatic makeover in their racial makeup, which could also have implications for the number of students graduating from high school. Between 2004 and 2015, the commission report says, there will be a 54 percent increase in the number of Hispanic graduates and an 11 percent decline in the number of white graduates.

In Massachusetts, the racial shift is expected to be less dramatic. Currently, whites represent 78 percent of all public school graduates, with Hispanics at 9.6 percent, blacks at 7.6 percent, and the balance coming from various other ethnic groups. Over the next 13 years, Hispanics are expected to grow to 17 percent of the graduate population, compared with 68 percent for whites and 7 percent for blacks.

If current dropout rates among minority groups don’t improve, the shift in racial makeup could make it even more difficult to boost the number of graduates. A report released recently by state education officials calculated that 11,436 students, or 3.8 percent of total enrollment, dropped out of high school during the 2006-2007 school year. The data showed that 9 percent of all Hispanic students enrolled in grades nine through 12 had dropped out, compared with 6.4 percent of African-Americans, 2.7 percent of whites, and 2.6 percent of Asian-Americans.

While Massachusetts as a whole is churning out plenty of graduates right now, some school districts are already experiencing slowing or declining enrollment. The Mohawk Trail Regional School District in western Massachusetts, for example, has seen its overall enrollment drop from 1,600 to 1,100 over the last five years.

School officials there are operating four elementary schools, three of which are barely half full. They want to close two or three of the schools, but doing so would trigger a violation of the legal agreements covering the bonds used to build the schools. The state currently makes payments on the bonds, but would stop if the schools were no longer being used for educational purposes.

Bob Aeschback, chairman of the Mohawk school committee, said local towns would go bankrupt if they were forced to make the payments. So the towns are pushing legislation that would allow them to close the schools and have the state continue making payments on the bonds. But state lawmakers have indicated they are unlikely to help out, in part because they don’t know how many other communities will soon be asking for similar help.

“Mohawk may be the first community facing this, but I would consider it the canary in the coal mine,” says Rep. Denis Guyer of Dalton, who filed the legislation on behalf of Mohawk.

Records of the Massachusetts School Building Assistance Authority indicate that many school districts are facing enrollment declines. Since 2003, Cambridge enrollment has fallen 14.3 percent, Barnstable is down 24.1 percent, Somerville is off 10.8 percent, and Boston has declined 6.8 percent. Other communities are growing, with Shrewsbury and Norwell both up 10 percent.

Area colleges are looking at the school population numbers with more trepidation than anyone. Their customer base is shrinking and some in the industry say a college or two may be forced to close. “Everybody in admissions who occasionally puts their head above the trench knows this is coming down the rails,” said Kevin Kelly, director of admissions at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Kelly said 75 percent of this year’s freshman class came from Massachusetts, down from about 80 percent in previous years. The university is now recruiting outside of Massachusetts more aggressively, particularly in the rest of New England but also in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and even California. “We’re trying to get the message out about UMass–Amherst to a wider audience,” Kelly said.

At Regis College in Weston, which draws nearly 85 percent of its students from Massachusetts, officials are also trying to expand their recruiting reach to south Florida, Puerto Rico, Maryland, and Virginia. The college recently went coed and is marketing its programs in the hot fields of nursing and health care.

Joe Bellavance, vice president of enrollment and marketing at Regis, said schools have to go where the students are. “You can’t just make more 18 years old. You had to make those 18 years ago,” he says.

Paul Clemente, chief financial officer at Bentley College in Waltham, says he worries the pool of available students is shrinking at a time when college costs continue to rise. He says colleges are trying to increase financial aid, but it won’t be easy. “How are people going to write the checks to pay for tuition for a regular middle class kid?” he asks.

Bump, who deals with business concerns about the supply of trained workers on a daily basis, says the downturn in graduates is not yet on industry’s radar screen. “They’re more focused on how they’re going to fill their jobs in two years than they are in 12,” she says.

Goodman says the state needs to reduce its dropout rate, convince more graduates to go on to college, and make sure those who graduate from college are trained in the fields that businesses need. The Legislature took a stab at addressing these issues in 2007 when it approved $3.75 million for the Commonwealth Covenant Fund, which is offering up to $5,000 per year to graduates of state universities who earn a degree in science, engineering, or math and commit to work or teach in the state for at least a year.

Brian Prescott, senior research analyst at the Western Interstate Commission, said states need to recognize that the brain drain isn’t just a school problem. “Too often we lay this at the foot of educators, but this goes beyond the classroom,” he said. “This is a state public policy issue.”

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