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When Older Americans Outnumber Students (Which Is Soon), How Will Schools Connect?

After decades of sinking birth rates and improving longevity, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2035, older Americans will outnumber children for the first time. That will leave more and more school districts financially dependent on communities with little or no direct connection to their students. 

According to new Census projections, U.S. seniors—those 65 and older—are expected to nearly double, from 49 million today to 95 million in 2060. During the same time, Americans under age 18 will grow by only 6 million. In 2016, seniors made up about 15 percent of the population, while children made up 23 percent. By 2060, however, children will make up 20 percent of all Americans and the over-65 set will grow to 23 percent.

An Aging Nation: Projected Number of Children and Older Adults

Greying Communities

That demographic switch dramatically changes the financial calculation for communities, who support the majority of the cost for both public schooling and services for older residents. Back in 1960, in the heart of the Baby Boom, there were two dependent children for every three working adults. By 2060, there will be little more than one school-age child for every three working adults—but there also will be one retirement-age American for every 2.5 working adults. It will be the first time that the majority of the nation's dependents will be older, not younger.

This change in demographic balance can be "very, very detrimental to public education," said Peter Francese, a New Hampshire demographic researcher, and a partner with the Communities and Consequences Project, which tracks economic changes in communities with demographic changes. "There's an exploding number of seniors in this country as Baby Boomers are turning 65, and unfortunately their attitude, in large part though not entirely, is 'Hey, I don't want to pay more taxes. I'm done, and I don't want to pay to educate somebody else's children.'"

Studies have shown those over 65 are more likely to vote for money to support police or health-care services than public education. That's particularly true when a community's school population is more diverse than its older residents. In New Hampshire, which is among the oldest and most rapidly aging states in the country, Francese said towns with higher populations of older residents are more likely to build age-restricted housing units, which further reduce the school-age population over time. 

"Kids are not a burden on your property tax," he said, "but the average voter doesn't believe that for a second." 

Intergenerational Outreach

Jeremy Gibbs, the chief academic officer for Transylvania County public schools in North Carolina, knows firsthand the need to connect with older residents. Its nine rural schools nestle in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and its picturesque location amid state parks and national forests have both limited its tax base and increased its draw for retirees in the last decade. The district's 3,400 students are overwhelmingly white and mostly low-income, and following declining enrollment in the past decade, they make up a smaller percentage of the population than those over 65.

Yet Gibbs said Transylvania County schools have developed close ties with seniors, from those who grew up in the community to the rapidly growing population who live there part-time. The district works with local church groups, Rotary clubs, and other organizations to set up volunteer opportunities for older residents. 

"To assume the older generation is not on Facebook is false, and we try to really get our message out and reach the community in any way we can," Gibbs said, noting senior groups regularly provide school supply and scholarship drives for low-income students. 

He pointed to the Connestee Falls Student Scholarship Program, a now three-decade-old volunteer foundation that grew out of a golfing club at a local senior-living community. Last year the program, which hosts multiple sports charity events and business partnerships, provided $90,000 in college scholarships to the school district and local private and community colleges. 

"What we've seen is a great level of involvement," Gibbs said. "You just have to establish a culture of [telling seniors], 'We want the help; we want to hear from you; we want you to take pride in your community schools.'" 

Bill Medl, director of the scholarship program, was an assistant high school principal outside Charlotte for 30 years before moving to Connestee Falls, and said the group takes pride in being able to provide college scholarships for a majority of the district's graduates last year. The benefit tournaments have expanded from golf to fishing tournaments, choir performances, and other activities.

"What is really the bottom line for most of our volunteers, what most of them have in common is they understand the value of an education and they want to pay it forward," Medl said.

Chart Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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