Recruiting Private School Students: Why Every College Needs a Strategy

November 10, 2021 John Williamson

A female private school student with her father at a college admissions interview.

Higher education enrollment is undergoing a seismic shift. COVID-19 has magnified the disruption, initially leading to a 57 percent increase in students applying to postgraduate high school programs1, concerns from students and parents over their ability to pay for college education2, and 45 percent of high school students below grade 12 considering colleges and universities closer to home3.

However, even before the pandemic turned everything upside down, the ice was thinning for higher education. Birth rates in the United States have declined since 20084, and, according to the National Vital Statistics Reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017 births reached a 30-year low5, foretelling tough sledding ahead for higher education admissions.

Questions about the ability of four-year degree programs to keep pace with rapidly evolving high-tech workplaces are also fueling a trending belief that work experience is more valuable than college education6. Indeed, credentialing programs are on the rise7. Add to this rethinking that 41 percent of recent college graduates were underemployed8 prior to the pandemic and the cost of attending a four-year institution is growing eight times faster than median wages9, and it’s understandable that in a 2019 Gallup Poll, only 41 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 said college is “very important” compared to 74 percent in 201310.

If you’re in higher education admissions, you’re likely all too aware of these statistics and prognostications. The real question is what to do about it?

The challenges are multifaceted but they aren’t insurmountable, and with the right strategy, they can become opportunities. For those in higher education admissions and enrollment marketing, data from a joint NAIS-Gallup Report indicates that recruiting private school students is one avenue to solidify enrollment.

The report found that 85 percent of NAIS graduates (representing over 1,600 member schools) enroll in college immediately after graduation compared to 69 percent of their public school counterparts. Nearly 100 percent of NAIS graduates eventually attend college, and once enrolled, they are more likely to complete their undergraduate degree in four years or less and are significantly less likely to transfer. Private school graduates, including minorities and first-generation college students, were also more active in clubs and extracurricular activities, fully immersing themselves in the higher education experience11.

Private school families also come to the higher education table versed in paying tuition expenses or navigating the financial aid and scholarship application processes. In a recent NAIS survey of private school parents, 58 percent indicated they invested in private school education primarily to gain college admission12.

Understanding the motivating factors of private school families and the shifting higher education enrollment landscape is critical to developing a successful strategy for recruiting private school students. It requires colleges and universities to begin engaging families in meaningful conversations earlier in the process before external factors influence them.

Connecting with private school families as they enter high school provides higher education institutions with an opportunity to learn about their goals and expectations. In turn, colleges and universities can develop messaging and even programming to help students navigate high school with an eye toward their collegiate aspirations, building trust along the way in their institutions and the value of higher education as a whole.

These early conversations are made possible with PROSPECT, the lead sourcing service from The Enrollment Management Association that provides access to private school students—and their parents—beginning with rising ninth graders. Advanced filtering enables enrollment teams to fine-tune conversations based on students’ geographic location, median family income and home value, SSAT score percentile ranges, religious affiliation, and academic, art, athletic, and extracurricular interests.

Contact the PROSPECT team today to learn more and start rethinking your institution's strategy for recruiting private school students.




  1. Jinghua Liu, “COVID-19 Continues to Impact Private School Applications,” The Enrollment Management Association, 2021; online at
  2. Will Patch, “Impact of Coronavirus on Students’ Academic Progress and College Plans,” Niche Partners, 2020; online at
  3. Patch, “Impact of Coronavirus.”
  4. NAIS, “2019–2020 Trendbook,” 2019. 
  5. Joyce A. Martin, Brady E. Hamilton, Michelle J.K. Osterman, Anne K. Driscoll, and Patrick Drake, “Births: Final Data for 2017,” National Vital Statistics Reports, 2018; online at
  6. Brandon Busteed, “Americans Rank a Google Internship Over a Harvard Degree,” Forbes, 2020; online at
  7. Credential Engine, “Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials,” 2019; online at  
  8. Elizabeth Redden, “41% of Recent Grads Work in Jobs Not Requiring a College Degree,” Inside Higher Ed, 2020; online at
  9. Camilo Maldonado, “Price of College Increasing Almost 8 Times Faster Than Wages,” Forbes, 2018; online at
  10. Brandon Busteed, “Importance of College Drops Nearly 50% Among Young Adults in Just Six Years,” Forbes, 2019;
  11. Amanda Torres, “New NAIS-Gallup Report on Student Outcomes,” NAIS, 2018; online at
  12. NAIS, “Jobs-to-Be-Done Study on Independent School Parents,” 2019; online at

About the Author

John Williamson

John has devoted his entire career to working on behalf of schools and students in the international enrollment management arena. He has spent decades researching new markets and making inroads into private schools across the globe. Before joining EMA, John directed enrollment and student affairs offices at universities and private boarding schools and has recruited in nearly one hundred countries. As the Director of Global Business Development for The Enrollment Management Association (EMA), John works to expand the reach of EMA's programs by working with more than 1,300 private schools and colleges worldwide.

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