Seven Enrollment Trends You Should Know From the 2019-2020 NAIS Trendbook

November 18, 2019 Myra McGovern

As the admission season progresses, it’s good to pause and take a broad view. How do national trends inside and outside of the education world affect your day-to-day work in independent school enrollment? 

Consider the following findings from the 2019-2020 NAIS Trendbook. The numbers may look challenging, but they offer opportunities for schools to expand and evolve what they do. They also offer you—as an enrollment leader—opportunities to lead strategic, data-driven discussions at your school. 

1. The U.S. birth rate continues to fall.

Fewer infants were born in America in 2017 than in any of the previous 30 years. Drivers of this trend may include people putting off having babies during difficult economic times
and cultural shifts in child-rearing decisions.

Related questions: What are the projected demographic trends in your region, and how can you share those with your leadership team? What steps can you propose now to prepare your school for such shifts?

2. Racial and ethnic diversity is increasing, particularly among children.

In 2017, children from racial and ethnic minority groups constituted the majority at every age from zero to 9. Beginning with those born in 2007, we are seeing the first majority-minority generation since the U.S. Census Bureau started collecting this information.

Related question: As the demographics of the school-age population continue to shift, how will your school adjust its strategies to attract and retain students of color?

3. Applications to independent schools are declining in some locations.

More than half of independent schools saw the annual number of applications decline between 2007-2008 and 2017-2018, but trends vary greatly by metro area. Schools in areas with a declining school-age population are more likely to report application declines.

Related questions: What are your school’s admission and enrollment trends over time? What do demographic forecasts predict for your region for the next five years, and how are changes likely to affect your school?

4. Total enrollment across all independent schools remained steady, but enrollment at different division levels varies substantially.

While upper and middle school levels remained steady or saw some growth after the Great Recession, total lower school enrollment declined between 2008-2009 and 2018-2019.

Related questions: How do your enrollment trends vary by division? What steps can you take to improve retention? How do you articulate your school’s value proposition and make sure it’s aligned with market demands?

5. Attrition is holding steady over time but is higher in elementary schools.

The median attrition rate for all NAIS member schools has increased only slightly over the last five years, from 7.6 percent to 7.8 percent during the 2017-2018 school year. The median attrition rate for students of color was lower than among all students, which is good news for schools as the population continues to diversify at a rapid rate.

However, schools serving younger students tended to have the highest attrition. The median attrition rate in elementary/middle schools was 10.3 percent, compared to 6.8 percent for middle/upper schools and 3.8 percent for upper schools.

Related questions: What is the attrition rate at your school, and how has it changed over time? Does it vary by demographic characteristics, such as race/ethnicity or grade level? What can your school do to lower attrition rates?

6. Competition and volatility are making the international student market more challenging.

The dramatic growth in K-12 international student enrollment has flattened. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of international students in independent schools grew by over 200 percent. Between 2015 and 2017, there was minimal growth for NAIS schools and a modest decline of 2 percent for all private schools. Beyond competing with other private and public schools in the U.S. for international students, independent schools are now also competing with a fast-growing number of government-supported schools (particularly in China) and other international schooling options of all types. Volatility in the U.S. political and regulatory landscape make the situation more complex.

Related questions: What are you doing to diversify your international student outreach to reduce dependence on one sending country? How are you managing your leadership’s expectations for growth?

7. More families are resistant to borrowing to cover school costs than in the past.

Most (74 percent) rely on current income to make tuition payments (compared to 59% in 2006). Today’s parents are less likely to take out a home equity loan/second mortgage (5% compared to 12% in 2006). Relying on current income leads to certain sacrifices, such as redirecting spending away from dining out and taking vacations.

Related question: How can insights about the experiences of parents inform your communications, tuition-setting approaches, and financial aid budgeting?

Learn more about the Trendbook at

About the Author

Myra McGovern

Myra McGovern is vice president of media at the National Association of Independent Schools.

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