In what has become an annual American ritual, almost engrained in our national DNA, in late May and early June a huge tide of tykes, teens and 20-somethings flows out of our schools and then in late August and early September flows back in.
It's that time of year when the tide of scholars floods back again. This fall there will be 74.9 million students, nursery school through college, which means, as the Census bureau points out, that more than one-fourth of our population is going to school. That's kind of what America does, go to school.
This fall, too, a record that has stood for 35 years will finally be eclipsed, according to the Census. The 54.6 million students now clattering into grades K through 12 exceeds the old record of 51.3 million set by the Baby Boomers in 1970.
The back-to-school days have evolved into a major economic event. This fall college students — and, perhaps, more especially their parents — will spend $34.4 billion returning to campus, a whopping 33.8 percent over last year, according to the National Retail Federation, which is of course quite pleased with this development.
The K through 12 crowd is no market to sneer at either, at $13.4 billion, but it is the college market that excites retailers, who see no signs of it slowing down.
Predictably — and parents may greet this with some relief — the single biggest college spending category is textbooks, at $11.9 billion. Others are electronics — $2 billion, $700 million more than last year — school supplies, clothing and shoes. Who knew it cost so much to look as scruffy as the average college student?
The hot new category of college spending is furnishing dorm rooms and apartments — an anticipated $3.6 million. While computer-savvy students are comfortable shopping online, big retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond will be greeting students in person with on-campus displays of merchandise. It is decidedly an underclassmen market. Freshmen will spend an average of $344 on furnishing and sophomores, $500. But juniors spend only $141 and seniors, by now fully furnished, just $74.
Back-to-school spending has made August the biggest shopping month outside of the winter holiday season. Educating the young is good for the economy, and now getting them educated is, too.