Five Independent School Trends in 2020–2021

Fall 2020

NAIS’s annual Trendbook explores the issues affecting independent schools from multiple perspectives and provides context to help school leaders navigate an ever-changing landscape. From the pandemic’s effect on consumer confidence to the need for edtech training, the new edition of the Trendbook highlights the outlook on critical issues. Here are five key takeaways from the new 2020–2021 NAIS Trendbook.

1. The decline in consumer confidence could challenge your school’s value proposition in the long term.

Understanding how the public feels about the economy can help school leaders estimate families’ willingness to commit to paying tuition. As confidence in overall economic conditions rises or falls, so does the likelihood that families will take on or forgo major purchases—such as an independent school education.

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 crisis has struck a blow to public confidence. Between March and April 2020, the pandemic’s economic impact caused the largest month-to-month drop ever in the Consumer Confidence Index: In just a month’s time, the public was less than half as confident about the state of the economy. However, consumers reported feeling hopeful that business and employment conditions, as well as their total family income, would improve as businesses reopened over the next six months.

If the recessions of 2001 and 2007–2009 are any guide, it could take several years for confidence to rebound completely. This could create a long-term challenge for independent schools seeking to convince families that their value proposition is worth the cost.

Strategic question: How can you increase families’ confidence that your school’s mission and program are worth the sacrifice they may have to make?

Source: Chapter 1, The Economic Outlook by Joseph Corbett, NAIS research analyst, and Mark J. Mitchell, NAIS vice president 


2. Enrollment lessons from the Great Recession suggest changes ahead in applications, acceptance, and yield.

During the 2007–2009 Great Recession, the admission funnel changed for many independent schools. Most notably, more than half of schools—54%—reported decreases in applications, and many experienced declines of 15% or more. At the same time, schools began accepting a higher percentage of applicants. The median acceptance rate increased by 7 percentage points from 2004–2005 to 2009–2010. Median yield (the number of admitted students who chose to enroll) dropped 6 percentage points between 2004–2005 and 2009–2010. To compensate for reduced applications during the 2007–2009 recession, independent schools also revamped their international recruitment efforts.

As of the 2019–2020 school year, applications had yet to return to their pre-Great Recession levels. Acceptance rates also remained elevated, although they haven’t significantly increased since their recession-era peak. Median acceptance rates were 66% in 2019–2020, compared with 58% in 2004–2005.
Despite this, yield returned to a pre-Great Recession median of about 100 newly enrolled students. This is a positive note for schools seeking to ensure continued enrollment beyond the immediate effects of the coronavirus crisis.

Strategic questions: How have your enrollment, applications, and yield changed during
the coronavirus crisis? What short- and long-term steps can you take to stabilize the admission pipeline?

Source: Chapter 3, The Enrollment Outlook by Joseph Corbett, NAIS research analyst, and Amada Torres, NAIS vice president of studies, insights, and research


3. Giving patterns in previous recessions offer reasons for tempered optimism about donor commitment. 

Past giving patterns suggest that despite the pandemic, donors of all generations will step up to the best of their ability. Independent school giving data for the period before and after the Great Recession show that giving fell slightly through the recession but quickly rebounded. Annual giving per student was $1,310 in 2007–2008, dipped to $1,276 in 2009–2010, and continued to grow after that, reaching a high of $1,633 in 2019–2020.

Recent trends offer other reasons for tempered optimism. The largest donor-advised fund (DAF) in the U.S., Fidelity Charitable, recently reported that donors had directed more than $100 million in grants from DAF accounts in response to COVID-19, boosting total grant volume by 36% in March 2020 over the prior year—a promising sign. And new legislation is also likely to spur giving. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act increases tax incentives for charitable giving for almost all taxpayers.

Fundraising experts gathered for a Giving USA board meeting offered this advice: “Don’t stop talking to big donors just because the world is being shaken. Past experience shows some donors never forgive the charities that don’t reach out in times of need.” Although many external forces are affecting philanthropy, what drives people to give has always remained the same: the desire to help.

Strategic questions: What were your school’s giving patterns over the past two decades and through the Great Recession? How can those data inform your approach to donors through this crisis?

Source: Chapter 5, The Philanthropy Outlook by Donna Orem, NAIS president


4. Having a diversity practitioner correlates with enrollment success.

Over the past decade, recognition of the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) htrendbook.JPGas increased in all sectors. Independent schools are no exception, as evidenced by NAIS’s “State of Diversity Practice” study, conducted in 2009, 2014, 2017, and 2019. The 2019 survey found that 54% of DEI practitioners held those positions full time, up from 34% in 2009.

During this period, having a DEI practitioner correlated with enrollment success. The 2018–2019 Trendbook noted that schools with the highest enrollment increases reported that most of that growth came from the number of students of color they admitted. In an NAIS analysis of enrollment trends from 2010 to 2020, a strong correlation appeared between enrollment and the presence of a diversity practitioner. Thirty percent of independent schools that added a diversity practitioner saw more than 10% growth in their enrollment. Additionally, 50% that added a practitioner saw moderate growth—up to 10%. Conversely, among schools with no change, 45% saw declines in enrollment of up to 10%. Overall, independent schools with diversity practitioners grew enrollment 4.5%, compared with just 0.6% enrollment growth for schools without diversity practitioners.

Strategic questions: Where does the diversity practitioner role fit in your broader organizational structure? Does your practitioner believe that he or she has a seat at the table? How do your head and board position themselves as champions of institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

Source: Chapter 7, The Equity and Justice Outlook by Caroline G. Blackwell, NAIS vice president for equity and justice, and Jay Rapp, NAIS vice president of professional development

5. Edtech training needs to be continuous and collaborative.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers’ confidence in their ability to use education technology was low. In a 2016 national survey, one in three teachers said lack of training was a very significant barrier to the use of technology in the classroom. A 2019 survey found that the percentage had nearly doubled, with 62% of teachers saying they were not at all or only somewhat prepared to use edtech resources.

Furthermore, in another 2019 survey, only 49% of the teachers surveyed said they had received training that helped them use edtech in innovative ways. Only 25% said they were provided with timely and relevant research and guidance about which innovations were effective.

Now, with many more students using edtech to learn remotely, the lessons of online learning research regarding teacher preparation and support are critical. Studies suggest that new technical skills, including an understanding of the privacy and security elements of technology, will be necessary. So will a focus on clear and consistent communication protocols, such as setting learning targets and work-completion expectations with students. Training, ideally, should be continuous and collaborative, aligned with professional development best practices, and flexible enough to keep up with the ever-changing nature of technology itself.
Strategic questions: How are you providing continuous and collaborative professional development opportunities to your faculty? How will you help faculty “upskill” to improve online learning design?

Source: Chapter 8, The Learning and Teaching Outlook by Tim Fish, NAIS chief innovation officer; Margaret Anne Rowe, NAIS research analyst; and Jackie Wolking, NAIS director of innovation programs



Go Deeper

Get an in-depth look at these trends and more in the 2020–2021 NAIS Trendbook. It includes an expansive outlook on economics, demographics, enrollment, philanthropy, governance and leadership, equity and justice, teaching and learning, and health and well-being. It also includes comprehensive data, strategic questions, action steps, and resources.