Independent school enrollment trends uncovered in the time of COVID-19

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Independent school enrollment trends uncovered in the time of COVID-19

3 key takeaways from EAB’s virtual roundtables for enrollment managers

This summer was one unlike any other for independent school enrollment managers. They navigated taking their offices virtual, managed ever-changing state and local guidance about reopening, and prepared for a year of recruitment that will look markedly different than any before. At EAB, our monthly summer virtual roundtables gathered enrollment leaders from across the country to discuss the challenges and triumphs they experienced since the pandemic began. Here are a few key takeaways.

Enrollment numbers remained steady, with increased interest from public school families

Despite early concerns about enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year, anticipated declines were not realized.

This was in part due to increased interest from public school families, particularly those with students in lower school grades that struggle more with online learning. Independent schools demonstrated a smooth transition to virtual learning last spring—one that received good press and was shared through word of mouth—as well as the ability to offer in-person learning for this fall.

Furthermore, families concerned about their local public school’s ability to deliver effective virtual instruction or apprehensive about their children’s safety when returning to densely populated school districts began to consider independent school as an appealing option.

enrollment data

Despite the strong enrollment numbers for this year, enrollment managers have voiced concerns about the 2021-2022 school year. Many worry that long-term hybrid learning or pared down academic and extracurricular offerings will impact parents’ willingness to continue to invest in an independent school education. Some enrollment managers also flagged the delayed impact schools saw in the 2008 recession on independent school enrollment as a potential future problem. This set of concerns will undoubtedly be at the forefront of recruitment efforts in the coming school year.

Looking ahead: The year of (mostly) virtual enrollment offices

This year, schools have taken steps to minimize on-campus interactions with non-community members. Some schools decided to allow small admissions gatherings or outside-only tours for prospective families, while others established strict no-visitor policies for the first semester or full year. In light of these decisions, enrollment leaders spent the summer surfacing ideas for how to redesign school tours, open houses, and annual recruitment events for virtual channels.

Shadow days for prospective or admitted students emerged as a top-of-mind issue for enrollment managers this summer. As early as June, they contemplated how they could give prospective students the experience of visiting campus without being able to attend in-person classes, spend time with current students, or explore the facilities. Some schools reported outfitting classrooms with Owl Cameras to offer a 360-degree view of the classroom (an initiative to benefit both current and prospective students). Others planned to pre-record shortened versions of favorite lessons from members of their middle and upper school faculty, allowing prospective students to design their own shadow day.

Now more than ever, it is critical for schools to be creative about how they convey their value to prospective families. To that end, EAB is creating an digital marketing resource center, where Independent School Executive Forum partners have access to resources that help them clearly articulate their value proposition and effectively share it through digital marketing.

Schools worked together to overcome new challenges

Finally, we heard from several partners that they are working with local peer schools to address enrollment challenges affecting the broader independent school community during COVID-19.

Enrollment managers in one city lobbied their consortium to run a virtual fair for the area’s independent schools, providing an opportunity to talk not only about individual school benefits, but also the broader value of an independent school education and the affordability provided by financial aid.

In another part of the country, enrollment managers agreed to all remain virtual for fall recruitment activities. Whether it was working together to prioritize the safety of the community or to spread awareness of the unique benefits of an independent school during these uncertain times, independent school enrollment offices came together to navigate these unprecedented times.

In the months ahead, EAB will continue to provide opportunities for enrollment leaders to connect and will be profiling innovative and creative ways independent schools are recruiting and retaining new families. In addition, we will be sharing an overview of enrollment trends surfaced through EAB’s pulse enrollment survey, which was administered across summer 2020.

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