How the Aging of the U.S. Population Will Affect K-12 Education

Today ExcelinEd, in partnership with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released a new study on American age demographics and their looming impact on the American K-12 education system. The report Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education  contains detailed projections on all 50 states and scale of the challenge each faces due (mostly) to the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Among a number of other needs, the study makes the case that America desperately needs better K-12 results as soon as possible.

Borrowing a phrase from Erasmus, academics often say that “in the land of the social science blind, the demographer is the one-eyed king.” This king can see something of the future. Population forecasting is a complex business, but overall the United States Census Bureau has a good track record. What does the one-eyed king see ahead for America?

ednext-feb15-ladner-img01The picture is a contemporary portrait taken of four generations of women. For purposes of illustration, however, imagine this is a portrait from the year 2030, and that each generation is a bit older than the women here.

Overall it is a marvel of modern life to have multiple generations alive at the same time, but current American social policy is heading into a crisis. Imagining the photo in 2030, the oldest woman (hereafter first generation) will have been retired for some time.

Understandably, your mind has drifted to the subject of Uncle Sam’s unfunded trillions in Medicare and Social Security. I understand why, but for now keep your focus on state government finances because it has to provide education, health care, roads etc. From a state government perspective, the largest challenge for the oldest Americans comes from the reliance on Medicaid to pay for nursing home care. The elderly already consume a majority of Medicaid funding despite being a minority of recipients. We have a completely unprecedented increase in elderly people in the pipeline.

The second generation will have also entered retirement age. She won’t be drawing upon social services as heavily yet as the first generation, but she will nevertheless impact state finances. Retirees exit the workforce often passing their peak earning years in the process. Economists have demonstrated that populations with higher percentages of non-working aged people tend to have slower rates of economic growth, which translates to lower rates of tax revenue growth.

The fourth generation has yet to enter the workforce and carries a societal cost in the form of K-12 spending, guaranteed in all 50 state constitutions. If she were to enter an American K-12 education system broadly similar to the one we have today, she has about a one in three shot or less of achieving full academic proficiency in various subjects despite attending a system that spends quite generously compared to European and Asian systems.

Pity the third generation, who must primarily pay for the Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and K-12 education in 2030. Was she one of the fortunate who actually obtained the academic knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in a hypercompetitive 21st Century?

We had better make certain of it.

Leave behind the photographic illustration to focus on the here, now and soon to be. The 76,000,000 strong Baby Boom generation is already moving into retirement. Every day between now and the year 2030, 10,000 Americans reach retirement age. Every state will be much older than today, and the vast majority of states will have a larger portion of elderly than Florida has today – some much larger.

As the Baby Boomers retire, many will also be sending their grandchildren off to school. The Census Bureau projects many states will face a simultaneous increase in school-aged and elderly populations. A fierce battle between advocates of public spending on health and public education looms. If economists have correctly described the relationship between age demography and economic growth, tax dollars may prove scarce, exacerbating the problem.

Much of the working-age population of 2030 and beyond – the third generation from our illustration expected to pay the taxes necessary to keep society functioning – currently attend American schools. Rather than one of those “someday we’ll need to think about changing things” on the education front we need to make very large improvements starting 20 years ago right now.

Let’s be clear about the improvement needed: in anticipation of the crisis ahead, we need a system of vastly improved learning outcomes at a lower overall cost per student. In other words we need to improve both the academic and cost effectiveness of our education delivery system. Some possibilities include next generation account-based choice programs (Education Savings Accounts), next-step charter school policies (Achievement School Districts) and learning-enhancing innovations through digital learning. The status quo in American education, should it persist in internationally high levels of spending and mediocre levels of learning, will contribute greatly to the difficulties ahead. A mind has always been a terrible thing to waste, and the horrible cost of that waste looks to escalate as the nation ages. Referring back to the portrait, 2030 may come to look dystopic if the third generation were to prove unemployable.

Improving education represents the most immediate concern in bracing for Hurricane Gray. Many other areas of American policy however will require serious reexamination. Innovations in health care, public pensions and immigration policy will be needed as a part of an overall rethinking of American social policy. The future is always uncertain, and necessity is the mother of invention. This much is clear: the status quo is not an option.

— Matthew Ladner

The new report, Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, is available at This post originally appeared on Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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