More than half of New Jersey’s school districts have shrunk in the last six years, reflecting wider population moves toward urban areas as well as net migration from the state. School districts are shrinking at a rapid rate in the Northwest of the state, as well as in Southern shore communities such as Avalon, Margate and Ventnor.
The declining school populations in part reflect a wider trend of depopulation of the outer-ring suburbs that is playing out across New Jersey and the Northeastern United States, according to Professor James Hughes, a senior faculty fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. The suburbs, where millennials were born and grew up, provided economic opportunities for their parents but have little to offer today’s 20- and 30-year olds. There are fewer children today than six years ago in almost all of the districts in Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties, and those that grow up there don’t want to stay there.
Shrinking schools also reflect the fact that a generation of New Jerseyans is delaying starting a family. And millennials who are starting to have children still want to live close to where they work–the suburbs are no draw. “When they do start raising families it’s going to be in places that have a walkable downtown, a rail station, access to activities,” Hughes said. The map already shows that districts in the Hudson Valley and some towns around Philadelphia (Haddonfield, for example) have seen a pickup in enrollment.
Total enrollment across the state has been flat over the last few years at around 1.37 million students after dropping to 1.36 million in the immediate aftermath of the recession. The stagnant school enrollment casts doubt over the future economic health of New Jersey, since a young and growing population creates a workforce that draws investment and can help support older generations. If the trend continues, it will likely lead to pressure on some municipalities to consolidate school districts. Potential school mergers are being researched in Hunterdon and Warren counties and the issue has also been raised in some shore towns.
“That’s a real issue I think going forward,” said Hughes. “New Jersey always exports a large number of high school graduates – they go to school out of state. The question is, assuming the number of high school graduates stays the same and we’re expanding the system, are we going to be able to counter that out-of-state movement?”
Hughes noted that to date, high school graduate numbers are still rising in New Jersey. But he cautioned, “When the number of high school graduates starts to decline…which is conceivable, we could have overcapacity in higher education.”