Five Independent School Trends to Watch in 2021–2022

Fall 2021

Falling birthrates continue to have a major impact on independent school enrollment. More donors are giving via mobile devices instead of checkbooks. And a record number of women and people of color have become school heads. These are a sampling of the varied findings captured in the newly released 2021–2022 NAIS Trendbook. It’s no surprise that some of this edition’s trends have been shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. But many others reflect long-term changes in the independent school world. All provide context to help shape the thinking of school heads, boards, faculty, and staff as they plan for the future. Here are five key takeaways from the new 2021–2022 NAIS Trendbook.

1. Stagnating population growth will influence independent schools’ enrollment goals.

The much-anticipated 2020 U.S. census confirms what demographers expected: Between 2010 and 2020, fewer births, more deaths, and uneven immigration contributed to the lowest U.S. population growth since the 1930s.

The pandemic has played a role in the most recent decline in births. Researchers estimate that there will be around 300,000 fewer births in 2021 thanks to unemployment and the anxiety and social conditions brought on by the public health crisis. One of the consequences of lower birthrates is the decreasing representation of children in the U.S. population. In 1960, children represented 35.7% of the total population. In 2020, that number was 22.1%.
A review of several metro areas where many independent schools are located shows that, by 2025, Baltimore, Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC, will record lower shares of children than the average for the country as a whole. Several long-term economic and societal circumstances are behind these lower birthrates. They include increased education and employment opportunities for women, delays in the average age of marriage and childbearing, and the general aging of the population.


Strategic question: What plans can you put into place to mitigate the adverse effects if the number of children declines in your area?
Source: Chapter 2, The Demographic Outlook by Amada Torres, NAIS vice president of studies, insights, and research

2. Online giving, including giving on mobile devices, is breaking records.

Despite fears about the pandemic’s effect on donations, most independent schools’ annual funds and capital campaigns fared well in 2020–2021. And just as the rest of the world felt driven to do more online during the pandemic, so did donors. A record number made gifts electronically and—to a greater degree than ever before—via their mobile devices.

According to the Blackbaud Institute, “2020 signified a tremendous amount of growth and maturity in online giving.” Among the 4,964 nonprofits studied in Blackbaud’s Charitable Giving Report:
  • Nearly 13% of total fundraising came from online giving, which made 2020 the first year when more than 10% of funds raised came via online sources. Among K–12 institutions in this study, the share was 13.5%.
  • Online giving in 2020 grew almost 21% year over year.
  • Among online donations in 2020, “an estimated 28% … were made using mobile devices. This has grown steadily since 2014, when it was just 9% of online donations.”
Giving isn’t the only thing that’s moved online. After the start of the pandemic in early 2020, many NAIS members went virtual with activities that they had previously assumed could be conducted only in person. After trying the online experience, many schools report being open to hybrid approaches in the future. Among respondents to the May 2021 NAIS Snapshot Survey, 74% said that in the future they will conduct one-on-one major donor solicitation in person and virtually.

Strategic questions: Given the growing importance of online giving, how could your website be more effective as a fundraising tool? What could you do to enable quick and convenient mobile giving?
Source: Chapter 5, The Philanthropy Outlook by Davis Taske, NAIS research associate, and Karla Taylor, co-editor of the NAIS Trendbook 
3. Independent school headships now include more women of all races and ethnicities and more people of color than ever before.  
As of 2020–2021, 41% of independent school heads were women, compared to 33% in 2000–2001. This is the highest percentage NAIS has ever recorded. During the same period, the number of heads of color increased from 3% to a record 10%.
This is good news, but there’s still room for improvement. In public schools, 54% of principals are women and 22% are people of color, according to recent studies.
Among independent schools, smaller schools and elementary schools recorded higher numbers of female heads than did larger schools and those serving students in high school. Similarly, there was a higher percentage of heads of color in smaller schools, especially ones with fewer than 101 students and elementary schools.
What accounts for the representation gaps? An NAIS study indicates that head search criteria tend to favor candidates from the academic side, a bias that works against people of color and white women, who are more likely to come from nonacademic roles. And female candidates, especially white women, were less likely to have worked with a mentor or career sponsor, which many experts consider crucial to achieving leadership goals.

Strategic questions: If your school is going through the process of hiring a new head, what steps may be putting women and people of color at a disadvantage? How might board members’ experiences and expectations be hindering women and people of color?
Source: Chapter 8, The Equity and Justice Outlook by Caroline G. Blackwell, NAIS vice president of equity and justice initiatives, and Amada Torres, NAIS vice president of studies, insights, and research
4. As employees place more value on collaboration, schools have an opportunity to rethink ways that teachers can improve their craft. 

How employees work has been altered by the pandemic. For school leaders, this shift presents a chance to reexamine how teaching jobs are structured. It may also encourage schools to experiment with options that offer more time for collaboration and learning as a way to improve both teacher well-being and student outcomes.
The National Center on Education and the Economy studied pre-pandemic data from a 2019 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey on how teachers in top-performing public education systems around the world spent their time. The study found that teachers in the United States spent far more time teaching classes than their international counterparts, who devoted a larger share of their time to professional learning and collaboration activities. For example, teachers in Finland and Japan spent, on average, 600 hours per year in the classroom teaching. This compares to nearly 1,000 hours for U.S. teachers.

Many independent schools already prioritize learning and collaboration for teachers. But today’s changing circumstances offer the chance to pilot additional initiatives that could provide teachers with even more opportunities to improve their craft. The benefits of such initiatives could make faculty recruitment and retention easier and, ultimately, help students learn more.

Strategic question: How could you restructure the teaching week to offer more time for professional learning and collaboration?
Source: Chapter 7, The Workforce Outlook by Donna Orem, president of NAIS

5. The head-board partnership generally received high marks during the pandemic.

Maintaining a strong partnership with the head is one of the board’s most important jobs. NAIS surveys indicated that heads thought their trustees did this well overall in the past two years.

In April 2020 and again in April 2021, NAIS surveyed heads regarding the head-board relationship. On average during both years, boards received scores above 4 (out of 5) on shorter-term priorities, such as supporting and collaborating with the head of school and engaging in appropriate decision-making.

In 2021, more heads gave their boards higher scores on certain important performance metrics: 76% of boards were rated 4 or 5 on their understanding of their responsibilities in a crisis, while 64% received a 4 or 5 on establishing mutual goals and success metrics with the head. However, slightly fewer heads felt that their boards were supportive—a decline from 83% in 2020 to 79% in 2021. How well school heads and trustees work together on all these fronts has a profound impact on the head’s ability to navigate not only a crisis but also the daily demands of the leadership role.

Strategic questions: In what ways has your board supported your head of school during the pandemic? How might this support shift in the coming year? 
Source: Chapter 6, The Governance and Leadership Outlook by Anne-Marie Balzano, former NAIS director of governance and leadership, and Margaret Anne Rowe, NAIS research analyst

Go Deeper

Get an in-depth look at these trends and more in the 2021-2022 NAIS Trendbook. This 12th edition includes the independent school perspective on the economy, demographics, enrollment, affordability, philanthropy, governance and leadership, the workforce, equity and justice, well-being, and teaching and learning. The book also includes comprehensive data, strategic questions, action steps, and resources. Order your copy at