6 Enrollment Trends to Watch

Summer 2021

By Heather Hoerle

A January 2021 Independent Ideas blog post curated some NAIS staffers’ predictions about the future of independent schools. One such prediction explored how the admission process will look different, explaining that:
Many schools have eliminated admission testing requirements during the pandemic, and many will abandon them altogether to advance equity or will invest in different testing approaches. The move will be a key component in a reimagined process that will step beyond the traditional timeline in favor of a rolling admission process embracing midyear enrollment, rapid decisioning, and more tuition support.

Although the pandemic was the backdrop for this prediction—along with others in the blog post—it will likely play out in the years ahead. The independent school admission process is undergoing immense change. Certainly spring of 2020 revealed dramatic shifts in independent school enrollment patterns, and as Tim Fish, NAIS’s chief innovation officer, has mused, the downstream consequences of this disruption could reshape what historically has been a predictable, seasonal process for new student admission to our schools.
So what changes are here to stay when it comes to independent school admission? What has worked well during the pandemic? What hasn’t? The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) has been studying the landscape, observing both the micro and macro trends emerging. We recently convened our Admission Leadership Council (EMA’s advisory group of 25 enrollment practitioners across the United States and in Canada) as well as several senior enrollment leaders to weigh in on these insights and to share their perspectives—which might last well into the future.
Independent school value is on the rise. Many U.S. families sought independent schools during the pandemic, often after a frustrating virtual education experience during spring 2020 and amid accelerated worries about their children falling behind in a lost year. Some independent school leaders have described this influx of new families as the “flight to quality.” 
As Ed Thompson, director of upper school and secondary school placement at Far Hills Country Day School (NJ), explains, the pandemic offers a silver lining for independent schools, relative to what most offer and what parents are saying they need. “Families across the country have spent the past year examining educational scenarios for their children from the virtual to in-person and from public to independent. The silver lining for independent schools just might be that now is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate our community’s value and attract new families.”
Thompson’s views are consistent with the research in the recent EMA report The Ride to Independent Schools 2020–2021. As part of the research, which EMA conducts every three years, we spoke to nearly 3,000 prospective independent school families during the summer of 2020 and learned about the drivers that contribute to their education decision-making process.
Over the past three years, there have been significant generational shifts in parent demographics. Gen Xers (parents currently in their 40s and 50s) now make up the majority of independent school shoppers, and their decisions are based on requirements such as “high standards and rigor” as well as the extra attention that private schools offer their children. Gen X parents are fierce advocates for their children and natural researchers; they will spend hours reviewing what they can find about a school online before connecting with anyone to learn more—which speaks to the importance of strong websites, careful social media curation, and regular reviews of other internet sites that might collect information about schools.
As independent schools are able to cite research showing strong programs and student outcomes—even during a pandemic—the perceived value of the education they provide will continue to rise.
Retention matters as much as new student admission. More than 60% of EMA’s members reported either increasing their enrollment or meeting enrollment numbers in September 2020­—many citing new families coming to them late in the summer for admission. While the majority of EMA member schools experienced increased enrollment—either meeting their enrollment goals for the year or exceeding their targets—they are now concerned about whether they will be able to keep those families as pandemic concerns potentially subside in the months ahead.
“It’s always easier to retain a customer than find new customers,” says Praveen Muruganandan, director of admission and advancement at The York School (ON). “In a time where there is so much uncertainty ahead, a focus on retention of mission-fit students is critical to our schools to ensure long-term sustainability. Regardless of the school type, our focus should be on managing the customer experience. I think enrollment management goes beyond the admission office and really is the responsibility of everyone in the school. As a school, we have to be focused on the recruitment, retention, and managing the student and parent experience.”
Adaptability has never been more critical in education. Schools’ independence from bureaucracy was demonstrated time and again as school leaders innovated on the fly, adapted old programs and launched new ones, and retrofitted campuses to serve students. March 2020 seems like a long time ago, yet the key takeaway isn’t that online learning is good or bad. Certainly some students thrive in an online setting, while others fare better in person, but the point is that our schools adapted quickly to both modalities. Independent schools have a story to share with the K–12 community about adaptability, change, and innovation inside of a crisis—and several years from now, we will be proud to tell those stories.
“After a spring of virtual learning, students and faculty were so grateful to be back on campus in August, as it highlighted the energy and connection among us,” says Emily Chrysler, director of admission at Whitfield School (MO), expanding on this attribute of adaptability. “Being able to maintain in-person learning for all who choose to do so, as well as flexible virtual options when needed, proves the integrity of central ideas in our mission, ideas like innovation, collaboration, and trust. While the year has been hard and tested our school in many ways, affirming school values helps us further define ourselves, differentiate ourselves from other options, and highlight the strengths of independent schools. The flexible nature of independent schools has a natural and positive impact on both recruitment and retention.”
Access and affordability remains a critical leadership issue. At the start of the pandemic we often heard the sentiment, “We’re all in this together.” It soon became clear, however, that the pandemic hasn’t affected everyone equally. At EMA, we learned this the hard way when we began to see a decline in the number of students requesting free testing and application services. This year, we’ve lost 21% of students requesting fee waivers, and the trend holds true in higher education as well, with fewer students requesting financial support during the admission process. The global pandemic has disproportionately affected lower-income families. How will this trend affect schools’ student composition and mission? 
Mark Copestake, director of enrollment management and financial aid at Latin School of Chicago (IL), is building his enrollment leadership plan to address this. “In many cases, families applying for financial aid have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic—whether that be educationally, financially, or technologically. This has resulted in many schools experiencing a decrease in new financial aid applications but being replaced by an increase in demonstrated need from current families. With so many of our schools dependent upon tuition revenue, strategic enrollment management is integral to the future success of our schools. Without it, our people and programs are at risk. There has never been a more important time to increase the focus on enrollment management to ensure that schools in our sector continue to thrive.”
The loss of international students is temporary. Much like higher education, independent schools are seeing a macro trend of international student decline. At EMA we saw early signs of a “pandemic enrollment effect” starting in December 2019 when fewer Chinese students attended our testing events due to the newly identified virus; within a few short months, the virus had spread worldwide, affecting students in every country. Add to that the worries about the U.S.’s management of the pandemic and its growing negative rhetoric about many other cultures, and it was not surprising to see large declines of international students in the collective independent school student body in 2020–2021. The trend continues to hold for the 2021–2022 fiscal year; EMA has noted a 28% drop in international applicants through our Standard Application Online service. Indeed, 51% of international parents surveyed in the 2020–2021 Ride report said they had safety concerns about sending their child to study in the United States, and 44% cited a concern about bullying, stereotypes, or racism. (These concerns were not raised with regard to Canadian independent schools—a telling note, reminding us that politics plays a role in independent school enrollment.) 
Yet hope remains that the trend can be reversed with active recruitment abroad this fall (as soon as travel restrictions are lifted) and continued positive messaging about the benefits of an independent school education for international students from our community. EMA’s virtual international student fairs that took place in March were sold out in anticipation of positive trends in the coming months, and we’ve already seen an uptick in applicants from Mexico. That said, we believe it will take several years to bring back the international market, and much will depend on the new administration’s policies.
Online application tools designed with families in mind will stick. Even with some independent schools fully open for most of 2020, enrollment leaders went through dramatic redesigns of their normal processes in order to meet the challenges of the pandemic. From virtual tours to online interviews to test-optional policies to new tool use (EMA’s Character Skills Snapshot grew by 200%), enrollment leaders were redesigning every day in an online environment. As a community that relies heavily on relationship-building and in-person connection, these shifts required creativity and constant conversation. 
What’s been exciting and different is the sharing that has occurred in the school community. “The adoption of a common application, such as the Standard Application Online,” says Quentin McDowell, associate head of school for external relations at Mercersburg Academy (PA), “is a key element to our collective efforts to bring more families into the independent school admission process. At a time when we are trying to reduce barriers, create access, and alleviate unnecessary stress on families, the value of a common application has never been more evident.”
Doug Price, dean of admissions and financial aid at Middlesex School (MA), agrees. “We know that many families find the school application process complex and daunting; as an industry facing demographic and enrollment challenges, our schools benefit from using tools that standardize the process as it demonstrates that we are designing together with the family’s needs in mind.”
EMA’s surveys to date have not revealed any consistent patterns for this year’s pandemic innovations as enrollment leaders look forward to the fall of 2021. And while it’s still too early to know which of these changes will “stick” in the coming years, the development and use of online tools are sure to be part of enrollment leaders’ toolkits. The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the value of building a family-friendly shared process in which our individual preferences are replaced by processes that better support families in matching their child and an independent school.

Surviving Groundhog Day

Given the continued uncertainty regarding in-school education for the 2021–2022 school year, EMA is watching a slower season unfold—just like last year. The prognostication that rolling admission will become the norm will hold true—most enrollment managers will operate in this mode to work with families and meet their new student goals. We expect that the pandemic will continue to press families to consider independent schools, especially as more headlines about the loss of student academic achievement are realized. Practically speaking, for most independent schools, this means that enrollment offices will be working through summer to ensure families are managed and budgets are met.

Given these trends and overlapping factors, there’s never been a clearer mandate for independent schools to embrace a fuller view of the work needed to drive strong enrollment. Heads, boards, and leadership teams must include the people responsible for delivering enrollment results at the leadership table; admission work is only one lever that you need to manage for enrollment success. And given the independent school model’s dependency on tuition—on average, 72% of independent school operating budgets are derived from tuition dollars, according to National Business Officers Association FY20 data—it is critical that schools have well-resourced enrollment offices.
The pandemic has created new exigencies for the independent school community, and those schools that have created an enrollment management team and developed an integrated strategy across multiple areas of the school have weathered this crisis very well.

NAIS Research: International Student Insights

As school leaders continue to assess the international student landscape amid the pandemic, they must work to understand what drives families now more than ever. NAIS has previously published research about the reasons why parents enroll their children in independent schools, using the Jobs-to-Be-Done (JTBD) methodology.
As a follow-up to this research, NAIS conducted interviews with parents and guardians of international students to understand the Jobs of parents of international students and how these Jobs may differ from those of parents of domestic students. Go to nais.org/research to find this new report.


Heather Hoerle

Heather Hoerle is executive director and chief executive officer at The Enrollment Management Association.