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Schools Are in the Baby Business: Maybe No Longer a Growth Industry

By Robert Van de Eyken
Schools Are in the Baby Business: Maybe No Longer a Growth Industry

Several weeks ago, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, and other news sources announced that the owners of the Nord Anglia Educational Enterprise, with hundreds of schools around the world, were putting the company up for sale. Why? With all the takeovers and acquisitions of schools that we are witnessing, is not education a booming business? Maybe not!

For some time, there have been reports regarding the impact of declining birthrates. When viewed from a purely ecological perspective, this can be seen as beneficial. However, analyzing the impact of declining birthrates on school enrollment, as with the economy in general, requires a multifaceted approach, considering various factors such as demographics, economic conditions, cultural norms, and government policies. The trend towards lower birth rates, to below 2.1 births per woman, which is the required rate to maintain current populations, is spreading. Several countries are already well below replacement level and within a decade, many more countries will be facing the dilemma of an ever-increasing number of elderly and fewer and fewer young people of working age to support them or go to school in the first place.

As educators, we need to be aware of this long-term trend. We are, after all, essentially in the baby business! Our enrollment numbers, like the sales of diapers and formula, are dependent on birth rates. Fewer babies this year will mean fewer pre-k students in a few years and on and on, eventually all the way up to university level. Also, we should take into account that international schools tend to serve people higher up on the socio-economic ladder and that demographic group in many places is the one that has seen the most significant trend towards fewer children, postponement of marriage, or not having children at all.

The ethical, social, environmental, or moral issues of reduced birth rates is not in question here. There are many factors at play and not all the causes nor the effects of decreased birth rates are necessarily negative, particularly in a world that sees far too many people marginalized due to their gender, economic, or political status. In general, declining birth rates are the result of improving standards of living, improved health care, improved education, and status of women etc.- all things to be celebrated. However, schools do depend on babies to become students and if birth rates are declining in the majority of countries there will most likely be an impact on enrollment in our schools, particularly in a market with more and more competition for fewer and fewer children.

The following are some sample statistics and trends:

United States of America (USA): 

Birthrates in the US have been declining for several decades, reaching record lows in recent years. Factors contributing to this decline include economic uncertainty, changing societal norms, and increased access to contraception.

The declining birthrate has already begun to impact school enrollment, particularly in regions with lower fertility rates and aging populations. This trend is expected to continue, leading to decreased demand for school infrastructure and potential consolidation or closure of schools in some areas. Private schools may face particular challenges as they rely heavily on tuition revenue, which could decline if there are fewer children to enroll. Public schools may also experience pressure to adapt to changing demographics, potentially leading to shifts in funding priorities and educational programs. Some school districts have started consolidating schools and closing schools with lower enrollment rates.

The declining birth rates in the USA are reshaping the educational landscape, affecting not only public schools but also charter and private schools. These institutions are experiencing similar enrollment challenges as they compete for a shrinking pool of students. While this trend presents significant hurdles, it also encourages innovative thinking and collaboration within the education sector to ensure that all students have access to quality education regardless of the type of institution they choose (Report on the Condition of Education 2022)

As with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and some countries in Europe, the decline in population is somewhat countered by immigration, which has, as we are increasingly seeing, its own challenges and is not something that can be guaranteed to continue at current levels.


China's birth rate has been declining despite the relaxation of the one-child policy. The same ministries who were once tasked with discouraging and even punishing people for having too many children are now focused on promoting childbirth and larger families - with minimal impact on the continued trend towards not having children. Factors contributing to this decline include rising costs of living, gender imbalances, and a growing preference for smaller families, particularly in a country where hundreds of millions have moved to small apartments in crowded cities from the countryside where children used to be seen as labor on the farm. The impact on future school enrollment in China could be significant, especially in regions where the decline in birthrates is more pronounced. This could lead to underutilization of existing school infrastructure and potential challenges for education policymakers. Private and international schools in China may face pressure to attract students amidst declining birth rates, potentially leading to increased competition and innovation in the education sector. The Chinese do, however, dedicate a greater percentage of their family income to education than in most countries so it could be assumed that education will still be seen as an important investment for the smaller number of potential students.


Japan has been grappling with a declining birthrate and an aging population for decades. Factors such as economic instability, high costs of living, and cultural shifts away from traditional family structures contribute to this trend. The impact on school enrollment in Japan has been significant, with many schools facing closures or consolidation due to declining student populations. Private schools in Japan may face particular challenges as they compete for a shrinking pool of potential students. Thousands of government schools have already been closed, particularly in rural areas. The government predicted the current low levels about a decade into the future, but these levels have already been reached and recently the Prime Minister declared this a national emergency with the existence of the country itself at risk. Some economists cite the declining population as one of the contributing factors for Japan’s decline from second to third and just recently the fourth largest economy in the world.

South Korea:

South Korea is also experiencing a decline in birthrates, driven by similar factors as other developed nations, including economic pressures and changing social norms. This year South Korea’s birthrate plummeted to less than one (0.9) child. The impact on school enrollment in South Korea has led to concerns about underutilization of school facilities and potential budgetary challenges for education authorities. Private schools in South Korea may need to adapt their strategies to attract students amidst declining birth rates, potentially leading to increased competition and innovation in the education sector. Like Japan, many schools are being mothballed and there is increasing concern on the future of the country with such an aging population.


Brazil, like much of Latin America has also seen a significant decline in birthrates in recent years, attributed to factors such as urbanization, increased access to education and contraception, and changing family dynamics. The impact on school enrollment in Brazil could vary depending on regional demographics and socioeconomic factors. In some areas, declining birth rates may lead to underutilization of school infrastructure, while in others, population growth and migration could offset this trend.

Latin America:

Birthrate trends in the rest of Latin America vary widely across countries and regions, influenced by factors such as economic development, cultural norms, and government policies. Research shows that this region’s birth rates are declining faster than most regions of the world.

General Trend Prediction:

  • By 2050, over three-quarters (155 of 204) of countries will not have high enough fertility rates to sustain population size over time; this will increase to 97 percent of countries (198 of 204) by 2100.
  • Pronounced shifts in patterns of live births are also predicted, with the share of the world’s live births nearly doubling in low-income regions from 18 percent in 2021 to 35 percent in 2100; and sub-Saharan Africa accounting for one in every two children born on the planet by 2100.
  • In low-income settings with higher fertility rates, better access to contraceptives and female education will help reduce birth rates, while in low-fertility, high-income economies, policies that support parents and open immigration will be vital to maintain population size and economic growth.
  • Authors at the Lancet warn that national governments must plan for emerging threats to economies, education, food security, health, the environment, and geopolitical security brought on by these demographic changes that are set to transform the way we live.


The one region that is predicted to buck this demographic trend previously described is Africa, which is projected to undergo rapid population growth and urbanization. The continent's population is predicted to double by 2050 to approximately 2.5 billion people, driven by high fertility rates and a youthful population, with a median age among the lowest in the world. The most dramatic increases will be in urban areas, as rural populations migrate to cities in search of better living conditions. This will contribute to the rise of megacities, particularly in Nigeria and Ethiopia. Additionally, the working-age population will expand substantially, offering both opportunities and challenges in terms of employment, economic development, and social services.


Overall, the impact of declining birthrates on school enrollment is likely to continue in the coming years, with implications for both private and public institutions. Schools may need to adapt to changing demographics by implementing innovative strategies to attract students, optimizing resources to accommodate fluctuating enrollment, and collaborating with policymakers to address broader societal challenges related to demographic shifts. Government policies aimed at supporting families, promoting education, and addressing demographic imbalances could play a crucial role in shaping the future of the education sector in each respective region.



Fertility rate: 'Jaw-dropping' global crash in children being born - BBC Report

Report on the Condition of Education 2022

David Demographics: Implications from Declining Enrollment in our K-12 School Districts


Pew Research Center: "U.S. birth rate falls to lowest point in more than a century"  National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

California Report on impact on school enrollment.

YouTube Video:,


South China Morning Post: "China’s birth rate plummets to lowest figure in 60 years" - China Education News Network

YouTube Video:


The Japan Times: "Japan’s birth rate hits another record low in 2020"

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) - YouTubeVideo:

South Korea:

Korea Herald: "S. Korea’s birth rate hits all-time low in 2020"

Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI)

YouTube Video:

S. Korea's schools shutting down amid continually falling birthrate:


Brazil Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE)

Ministry of Education (MEC)

YouTube video:

         Latin America:

Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)

UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)


UNICEF "Generation 2030 Africa 2.0" Report

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA): "World Population Prospects 2022"

World Economic Forum: The children’s continent: keeping up with Africa's growth

Robert van der Eyken is the Director Academia Cotopaxi, Quito, Ecuador. He has been an international educator and leader for over 25 years in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.

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