Private School Enrollments: Bucking the Trend or Right on Target?

Private School Enrollments: Bucking the Trend or Right on Target?
Private School Enrollments: Bucking the Trend or Right on Target?

Enrollment Management//

October 23, 2022

Job loss and economic uncertainty in the early months of the pandemic left the future of private-independent schools in flux. A survey conducted by the CATO Institute in early 2020 showed a decline in enrollments in 50% of schools. For many schools, fears of school closings and shrinking class sizes weren’t conjecture, they were reality.

That bleak outlook soon gave way to a seismic shift. Due in large part to their smaller size and ability to closely monitor COVID-19 protocols within their campus communities, private schools became a bastion of hope for families. Pre-pandemic, many of these parents had not considered an independent school education for their children.

But as some public school districts struggled to create manageable remote or hybrid teaching models, much of the private school industry found ways to maintain in-person learning. As word spread through media stories and word-of-mouth, many private schools subsequently experienced an enrollment boost.

That boost begs the question: Is that upward enrollment trajectory an anomaly, or is it sustainable long-term?

Numbers Don’t Lie

To answer the sustainability question, we must look at the data. The CATO Institute conducted another survey, this time tracking the enrollment numbers of private schools between the end of the 2020–21 academic year and the beginning of the 2021–22 academic year.

Of the sampling used by researchers, results showed a 35% increase in enrollments while only 27% of schools reported losses. Also of note, 38% of schools surveyed reported no change in their enrollment numbers—further proof that the aforementioned downward spiral of the private and independent school industry was a short term loss and not an alarming trend.

Drilling down further, researchers sought information from schools with pre-Kindergarten programming. Those schools saw an even higher increase of 53%, with enrollment losses measuring at just 16%. Even when examining data that excluded pre–K, the numbers still painted a rosy picture for private schools: 47% reported an increase, with losses and no change in enrollments in a statistical dead heat.


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Unpacking the Data

The takeaway from this research: the addition of new students during this timeframe was indeed part of a larger growth trend among private academic institutions. Future research will likely delve into the next phase of useful data—tracking whether or not independent schools experienced significant gains or losses in the 2022–23 school year. In the interim, it’s essential that schools redouble their recruitment and retention efforts.

Looking Ahead

Public school districts around the country opened their doors in the 2022–23 academic year with normalcy—classes are in-person and students are encouraged to once again become involved in extracurricular activities.

Although statistically the future of private schools is bright, now is no time to rest on our laurels. What’s the next step?

All relevant stakeholders—administrators, School Heads, Boards of Trustees, Advancement and Admission offices—can maximize gains by educating the public about the benefits of a private school education. Indeed, this is the perfect time to reevaluate existing communications and marketing efforts:

  • Changing times require changing messaging. What makes your school special? Update marketing materials to reflect upgrades to your facilities or programming, or changes in day-to-day campus operations.
  • Give your website a facelift—it should be engaging and interactive, not static. Highlight the most up-to-date information about your school.
  • Consider the value of third party endorsement: Parents and students are effective admissions ambassadors. Feature testimonials in print and video marketing. Encourage your Trustees to promote the school within their personal networks as well.
  • Toot your own horn! Share successes from the pandemic and plans for the future with your school community via internal communications such as a weekly online newsletter or video, or a regular strategic update from the School Head.
  • Seek inroads to the community-at-large through well-targeted media outreach: Pitch a story to a local reporter, invite members of the media to a campus event, or establish a member of your staff or faculty as an expert to serve as a resource for future stories or articles.

Data trends are a useful tool for any industry—but nothing compares to the personal touch. Use data and forecasting to set the stage for your admissions efforts, and rely on the warmth and appeal of your school to bring families into your community.

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