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Perspective | An aging state with ‘growth stagnation’ of young people

The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t deliver breaking news. Rather, it documents and illuminates societal shifts detected over time. The legendary newspaper editor Gene Roberts, a North Carolinian, famously instructed journalists to report news that oozes.

In its mid-August release of data needed for congressional and legislative redistricting, the Census also issued findings from the 2020 count that highlight significant news that has oozed in North Carolina. Census data point to the state’s dramatic decades-long shift from a bi-racial to a multi-ethnic society and from a spread-out land of small towns and middle-sized cities to a mega-state with muscular major metropolitan regions.

For educators and policymakers, the Census data tell a consequential and challenging story — what demographer William H. Frey characterizes as the “growth stagnation of the nation’s youth population.”

In his analysis of the Census data, Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, focuses on the combination of decline in the under-age-18 population and the increased racial and ethnic diversity of American youths. From 2010 to 2020, the U.S had a net loss of 1.1 million young people. 

“In a country that is rapidly aging, an absolute decline in the youth population represents a demographic challenge for the future,” Frey writes.

As Americans as a whole, especially white people, age, he reports, people of color now account for more than 40% of the U.S. population.

“The rise of youths of color is a key element of the changing demographics of America’s under-age-18 population,” says Frey. “These groups have not only stemmed a sharp decline in the youth population but, as they age, will be driving most of the growth in the nation’s labor force.”

The under-18 population declined in 27 states, not including North Carolina, which had a gain of a mere 2,654 youths — a 0.1% increase, reports Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography. In her recent blog post, headlined, “NC growth over last decade entirely from adult population,” Tippett focuses on county-level growth and decline.

“While 51 North Carolina counties had fewer residents in 2020 than in the 2010 census, nearly three in every four counties (74) had fewer children in 2020 than in 2010,” she writes. 

Drawing on demographic data available prior to August, the strategic initiatives committee of the UNC Board of Governors recently looked at indicators of slowing growth in North Carolina’s college-age population. Its analysis shows projected growth of only 1.54% in high school graduates from 2017 to 2027, and a decline of 2.9% from 2027 to 2037. In the two decades since 2000, the UNC analysis says, the state had a net gain of 230,243 — a 28% increase — in 18-to-24-year-olds; the projection for the 2019-2039 period is for a gain of 92,000 — only an 8.8% increase. Nearly all of the growth in the 18-to-24-year-old population is expected to come from the state’s 10 largest counties.

“What strategy (or strategies) should the UNC System adopt in light of demographic shifts ahead?” the committee analysis asked. UNC President Peter Hans has advocated bringing more adult learners into higher education.

The preK-12 schools, of course, don’t have that option. But the question of how to respond to demography is both relevant and daunting. At a tough moment for elevating the education of its young people to thrive in a modern economy and to engage in advancing democracy, the Census findings suggest shifting from managing quantity to enhancing quality.

North Carolina is a dynamic state with geographic, economic, racial, and cultural divides. It is a state with a Constitution declaring that the “General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools… and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” The work ahead is to make the constitutional charge less of an aspiration and more of a reality.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.