Scenario Planning: 4 Trends to Know for Sustainable Enrollment

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” All leaders have dreams for their schools, but if the past few years have taught us anything, it is that external forces can quickly dash those dreams. One of the most effective ways to weather forceful external winds is to engage in scenario planning. Even in good times, staying on the upside of change and making dreams a reality requires scenario planning.

In my next few blog posts, I will take a closer look at trends that have been forecast through the lens of potential impact on key drivers of school operations, asking a series of “what if” questions to frame scenario planning efforts. In this post, I’ll examine trends that could affect enrollment drivers.

Forces Impacting Enrollment 2020–2030

What if…the school-age population continues to decline in your school’s market?
The school-age population is projected to grow from 74 million in 2020 to 75.7 million by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, although that growth will be uneven across the country. And given the decrease in birth rates during the early part of the pandemic, the enrollment impacts along the way will be uneven. For example, elementary schools may see larger dips in enrollment from 2026 through 2028.

The makeup of the school-age population will continue to evolve as well. All races and ethnicities are expected to increase in size or remain status quo during the 2020–2030 period, except for the non-Hispanic white population, which is expected to decrease from 49.8% of the school-age population in 2020 to 46.9% by 2030. The share of the Native American school-age population also is expected to decrease slightly from 1.6% in 2020 to 1.5% by 2030.

And looking even farther ahead, according to census data, the 2030s are projected to be a transformative decade for the U.S. population. Net international migration is projected to overtake natural increase in 2030 as the primary driver of population growth, another demographic first for the United States.

Suggested Action for Schools: To begin building potential scenarios, use NAIS’s Market View tool to examine how your recruiting area will change in the years ahead. Assess what specific impacts these changes will have on your school in various grades. Develop best- and worst-case scenarios of what your market could look like if various demographic factors intensified.
What if…remote work trends drive families to other locations (domestic or international), affecting your school’s recruiting area?
Early in the pandemic, people migrated out of major cities to surrounding suburbs or smaller, less-expensive cities. And as remote work becomes a reality for more people in the years ahead, we may see fluctuations in where people choose to live. According to a March 2022 Pew Stateline article, “moves out of the densest parts of big cities, those with more than 10,000 people per square mile, jumped 17% to about 2.9 million during the first year of the pandemic.” The following year, those patterns returned to what they had been pre-pandemic. According to Stephan Whitaker, a policy economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland who has studied pandemic moves, “People kept moving to big metro areas during the pandemic but tended to favor more residential areas of the cities and big suburbs.” He believes this trend will continue as millennials begin to look for more space and raise families.

The global real estate group CBRE, in analyzing change-of-address data, found signs that “people tended to move to counties near big cities, especially affluent young adults who are childless and can work remotely.” These patterns may continue to stay in flux as some researchers are beginning to see an uptick in rentals in large urban areas.

Suggested Action for Schools: To enhance your scenarios, incorporate how movements in or out of your market could affect enrollment. Generally, real estate and moving companies as well as the U.S. Postal Service are good sources of migration data.

What if…the attractiveness of a U.S. education wanes for an international population?
According to NAIS’s latest international student Pop-Up survey, 36% of responding schools reported fewer or slightly fewer international students enrolled compared to this time last year, 31% reported about the same amount, and 33% reported slightly more or more. Additionally, according to data reported in the Wall Street Journal in August 2022, “the number of U.S. student visas issued to Chinese nationals plunged by more than 50% in the first half of 2022 compared with pre-COVID levels, with the U.S. losing ground as the most-coveted place for Chinese students to pursue higher education abroad. …In the first six months of 2022, the U.S. issued 31,055 F-1 visas to Chinese nationals, down from 64,261 for the same period in 2019, according to data from the U.S. State Department.” Could these numbers forecast even steeper declines for U.S. independent schools?

Suggested Action for Schools: If you enroll international students, imagine what type of events could produce increases or decreases in students from various countries and the effect this would have on overall enrollment. Use NAIS’s Data Analysis and School Leadership (DASL) to compare your international enrollments over time with comparison schools. What insights could this offer?

What if…jobs continue to evolve, with smart machines replacing humans in some industries or creating new jobs in others, and parents or alumni look to your school for reskilling opportunities?
Research conducted by Accenture identified three types of new jobs that could emerge as artificial intelligence (AI) adoption becomes more rapid and widespread. These include:

Trainers: human workers to teach AI systems how they should perform. “Customer service chatbots, for example, need to be trained to detect the complexities and subtleties of human communication.”
Explainers: employees who will bridge the gap between technologists and business leaders. “Companies that deploy AI will need employees who can explain the inner workings of complex algorithms to nontechnical professionals. For example, algorithm forensics analysts would be responsible for holding any algorithm accountable for its results.”
Sustainers: workers to ensure that AI systems are operating as intended. The Accenture survey found that “less than one-third of companies have a high degree of confidence in the fairness and auditability of their AI systems, and less than half have similar confidence in the safety of those systems.”

The Accenture survey was conducted in 2017, so there’s no doubt some of the forecasts are already reality today. To meet these reskilling needs, colleges and universities are already retooling. Writing in Higher Ed Dive, Anne Khademian, executive director at Universities at Shady Grove, suggests that the challenge for higher education will be serving more fluid students, noting that because of the elimination and emergence of jobs, students will need to flow in and out of education. “They will seek to direct their educational experience toward personalized career opportunities, while stacking and banking credentials and experience into degrees.”  

Is there an opportunity for schools to build alternative revenue streams by offering reskilling to community members—alumni, parents, grandparents—either alone or in partnership with a college or university? As the need for reskilling becomes the way we work in the future, we may need to rethink the portrait of a student.

Suggested Action for Schools: Infuse thinking around how technology could change educational needs into your existing scenarios, noting what enrollment markets could open for your school as smart machines continue to disrupt the landscape.

As you continue scenario planning, consider these additional questions around enrollment:
  • What if students and families don’t value your school’s differentiators as they once did?
  • What if new competitors offer what families are looking for at a more affordable price?
  • What if economic conditions continue to cause distress and the number of families who can afford your school no longer sustains your school enrollment?
  • What if gifts to the school decline, affecting your ability to fully fund financial aid?
  • What if further developments in online education, including virtual reality-based learning, coupled with a sustained growth in remote work for parents, creates an exponential growth in hybrid homeschooling, specialized club sports programs, and place-based after-school enrichment programs—and a dramatic decrease in independent school enrollment?
  • What if another pandemic drives everyone inside for a six-month quarantine?
Now, get to work designing those scenarios. The Bridgespan Group offers a streamlined toolkit that can guide your process.
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.