Enrollment Trends in Independent Schools

In recent years, many have pointed to the rapid shuttering of Catholic parochial schools as the source of the declining enrollment in private schools overall. Parochial schools make up the largest portion of the private school sector, so trends within them loom large. NAIS research, however, shows that it’s not just parochial schools that have been struggling. The past decade has been challenging for many independent schools. Nearly half of the 939 schools in an analysis of enrollment change between 2006-2007 and 2013-2014 lost students over the last decade, while a bit more than half grew in enrollment.
Schools that serve only day students follow the industry-wide pattern, but day schools that have boarding components are more likely to be growing than declining. These schools are often able to recruit more boarding students when conditions in their local markets make it challenging to recruit day students.
Regional variations in enrollment change patterns are noteworthy. In the East region, which consists of New York and New Jersey and includes the powerful New York City economy, almost 65 percent of the schools are in the growth categories, and nearly half of these are high growth. The same story applies to the West and Southwest. In these parts of the country, where long-term economic growth has remained more consistent, schools are more likely to be growing than declining. In contrast, the Mid-Atlantic region, dominated by Baltimore and Philadelphia, has more decliners than gainers. The New England, Midwest, and Southeast regions are equally divided between gaining and declining schools. Region, and specifically economic climate and population growth, clearly matters.
What can you do? Using the NAIS Demographic Center (member-only), evaluate trends in the school-age population.
  • Is the population projected to grow in the areas from which you’ve traditionally recruited students?
  • Do you need to target new zip codes or regions (if you are a boarding school)?
  • Is the racial and ethnic composition of the population in your draw area changing?
  • What new strategies should you try to forge ties with underrepresented communities?
  • Is the household income in your area changing?
  • What does that suggest for your financial aid program?

Evaluate your mission and programmatic offerings.

  • What makes your school distinctive?
  • What do families value most?
  • What do your competitors do better?
  • Do you communicate well the unique value of your school, or are you trying to be all things to all people?
For more information on the trends that will affect independent schools in the coming year, including action steps to help you deal with enrollment and demographic changes, please see the 2015-2016 NAIS Trendbook, available now in the NAIS bookstore.