Independent School Trends and Best Practices Update – Fall 2022

Female High School Teacher Standing Next To Interactive Whiteboard And Teaching Lesson To Pupils Wearing Uniform

In reporting on the trends in Pre-K–12 independent school education earlier this year, Donna Orem, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), cited several outcomes, questions and lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. With no single typical experience among the schools, she noted several common themes that can provide guidance for the future:

  • Average enrollment nose-dived early in the pandemic, then rose in 2021-22, but the picture is mixed for the years ahead. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, private school enrollments are expected to remain flat for the next decade. While this varies among schools and regions, Orem suggests the need to explore whether the potential for growth is higher if school costs were lower.
  • Student diversity is also on the rise – from 21% representation of students of color in 2010-2011 to 31% average today. Yet, children of color to age 17 represent 53.3% of the US population. “Our focus on belonging must be priorities as our communities become more diverse,” she wrote. (See more on the topic of “belonging” on page 3.)
  • The international student market appears to be falling as a result of the pandemic and the next five years might be worse or much worse according to an NAIS pop-up survey.
  • School leaders also prioritized keeping their communities together during the pandemic, but many were unsure whether they would be able to meet the increased demand for financial aid. At NAIS schools, the percentage of students on financial aid has consistently been around 23-24% since 2010, went up to 27% in 2021, but is coming back down again.
  • Other challenges and opportunities:
    • Schools accepted new ways of doing things (i.e., online school and online events) and flexed their ‘muscle of adaptability,’ while responding to the toll on mental and physical health of students and faculty. The next question is how to continue to be flexible as needs arise without feeling the pressures.
    • A deeper understanding that mental health is as important as physical health. “Schools can take the lead in becoming centers of community well-being and, in the process, improve student outcomes and more successfully recruit and retain a workforce in the future,” she counseled.
    • With widening inequalities between the haves and have-nots, and the U.S. middle class “virtually disappearing,” schools will need to affirm their purpose and their approach to this unequal society and the business model that aligns with it. If not, “the market will dictate it for us.”
    • With the dynamic demographic and social changes, “schools need to begin scenario planning now for the school market of the future, which may be unlike any ever faced.”[1]

Additional topics on the recent independent school landscape include:

  • Emerging, restrictive state laws about what teachers can teach regarding racism and sexism. Fourteen states have passed legislation limiting the scope, and book bans are proliferating.[2]
  • The head-board partnership generally received high marks during the pandemic and continues to be a priority. In 2021, more heads gave their boards higher scores on certain important performance metrics. Their understanding of their responsibilities in a crisis, shared strategic thinking and establishing mutual goals and success metrics were among the improved ways that boards and school administrations aligned to set direction and facilitate the head’s ability to navigate a crisis and the daily demands of the leadership role.[3]
  • As employees place more value on collaboration, schools are exploring ways that teachers can improve their craft. These initiatives could make faculty recruitment and retention easier and, ultimately, improve student learning.

And, these other high-level influences are considerations for independent school planning for the future:

  • The design of the learning environment. Several observers see an end to the “facilities arms race” with less construction in the coming years as a result of increased flexibility and less competition with peer schools regarding facilities. Schools’ growing interest in being environmental stewards is also playing a role in this trend. This includes exploring how to expand, improve or repurpose existing buildings.[4]
  • Planning ahead, according to one construction firm specializing in private schools, can be a thoughtful blend of today’s design trends and future educational needs. For “timeless buildings,” they counsel:
    • Stay as flexible as possible. With increasingly specialized skillsets needed for today’s complex world and constantly changing technology, this means spaces that can be moved – and moved around – and more outlets and charging stations for devices.
    • Balance independent learning spaces with group engagement spaces.
    • Integrate today’s technology and prepare for tomorrow’s.
    • Use nature-inspired design principles by integrating natural elements indoors – either large windows for views outside or real plants or wall art with plants and other elements when large windows and views of nature aren’t possible.
    • Opt for energy efficient designs.[5]
  • A growing movement toward “purpose learning.” While learning in the past emphasized thinking, “learning in the future will integrate thinking with rich forms of feeling and doing, all at the same time. At the center of these three domains, students have a chance to explore purpose in learning and life.”[6] During the pandemic’s massive shift to online learning, educators recognized more than ever how important equity and belonging are for learning. They began discussing a “new frontier for learning” focused on how to create spaces of belonging, where students can bring their emotions to learning.
  • Long-term cultural change to advance DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives. While many schools have been laser-focused on advancing racial justice, some have been satisfied with simply a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach rather than systemic change.[7]
  • Education for living with and managing Artificial Intelligence. In his provocative 2017 book, Robot-Proof, focused on remodeling postsecondary education for the future, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun presciently forecast: “Today, the colonial age and the industrial age exist only in history books, and even the office age may be fast receding into memory…We live in the digital age…A robot-proof model of higher education is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it refits their mental engines…to invent, discover or otherwise produce something society deems valuable.”[8]
  • As a result, transform according to the demands of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Described by the World Economic Forum in 2016, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is technology-fueled and fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another.[9] Because its scope will be unlike anything in the past and is evolving at an exponential pace, its disruption across every industry has futurists, business leaders and academics taking notice. McKinsey & Company, for example, says this massive change driving productivity and growth across manufacturing and production necessitates a workforce with capabilities for successful digital transformation.[10] For independent schools, according to futurist Bernard Marr, this means that every school must do eight things:[11]
    1. Redefine the purpose of education by supporting children to develop the skill set and mindset to do anything in their futures rather than a particular something.
    2. Improve STEM education and include humanities like arts (STEAM), as executives desire employees with critical thinking and collaboration skills even more than those with tech skills.
    3. Equip humans to partner with machines rather than compete with them.
    4. Adapt and nurture lifelong learning models.
    5. Alter educator training so that teachers become guides to help students facilitate their own learning and lines of inquiry.
    6. Make school maker spaces that allow students to practice curiosity, problem-solving skills, inquisitiveness and the iterations of failure.
    7. Develop international mindfulness as employees of the future will need to have a global mindset in an ever-increasing digital, interconnected world.
    8. Change higher education so that it offers shorter and more focused college qualifications as well as lifelong education opportunities with modular post-grad qualifications throughout the working lives of individuals.

One independent school counselor summarizes this another way, “Students and families who go on autopilot and reach for a career with a seemingly high ROI today may be surprised by the outcomes. The fact is that none of the fields we know will exist as they are today in the future.” By understanding the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agreed on by world leaders a few years ago, schools can help students develop mindsets and skills to tackle big problems that will be around for a lifetime – such as food systems, peace and justice including diplomacy, sustainable cities and communities and affordable and clean energy.[12]

Higher Education Trends – What’s Changing?

As independent school families anticipate this future and postsecondary education, coupled with the impact of the pandemic and the general state of higher ed disruption, here are some of the emerging trends to prepare for:

  • Moves toward reform: Taking the high-level view, the World Economic Forum cites four broad trends taking shape in 2022:
    1. Learning from everywhere – enabling students to apply concepts learned in the classroom out in the real world.
    2. Replacing lectures with active learning – including internships with employers and experiential education.
    3. Teaching skills that remain relevant in a changing world – skills that cross boundaries of disciplines and equally applicable to all professions (e.g., both scientists and lawyers).
    4. Using formative assessment instead of high-stakes exams and measures that provide a more holistic picture of competencies. Many U.S. universities, such as Harvard, are starting to abandon standardized tests.[13]
  • College enrollments continue to decline, indicating a fundamental shift in the value of a college degree: In Spring 2022, 662,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs than a year earlier, a decline of 4.7%. Overall total undergraduate enrollment dropped 1.4 million, or 9.4%, during the pandemic.[14]
  • College admissions practices: This latest point, prompted by COVID-19 and social justice activities, is translating into changing admissions policies and methods for facilitating college access. For college admissions, since 2019, the number of optional or test-blind institutions has grown to 1,600 from 1,050 colleges tracked by FairTest, an organization that aims to reduce the role of standardized testing. Another statistic says this number may be as many as two-thirds of public four-year institutions. (Test-optional allows students to decide whether to submit test scores as part of an application; test-blind means scores are not considered if submitted.) Understanding each college’s practices may help a student plan his or her admissions strategy.[15]

Additionally, colleges want to see: (1) students challenging themselves, willing to risk perfect GPAs by taking courses that will demonstrate a willingness to take chances, including AP and IB coursework, according to the IECA; (2) while extracurriculars have risen to their highest level of importance ever in IECA rankings, colleges look for long-term, passionate, authentic involvement in one or two activities, whether in or out of schools; (3) essays remain important and are even more important than at private colleges; (4) colleges also want to know how students will contribute to campus life (e.g., demographics, special talents, interest in research or demonstrations of character or values); and (5) also important, a student’s demonstration of interest and enthusiasm in attending.[16]

Along with all this, the competition is increasing. More students are applying to selective schools, so acceptance rates are dropping, while fewer students are applying to less prestigious schools. Meanwhile, student mobility is decreasing – the tendency to change institutions, thus opening up new spots due to transfers. While U.S. birth rates are declining, the effort to recruit more heavily from underserved communities has decreased the percentage of white students in college graduating classes from 51% in 2019 to an expected 46% by 2025. This also shows that colleges are working more heavily to recruit from low income, first-generation college students and communities of color.[17]

Alexis Marteslo contributed to this report.


[1] “The Pre-K-12 Education Landscape: Trends, Learnings, and Questions,” Donna Orem, NAIS, Feb. 15, 2022.

[2] Independent School Magazine, NAIS, Summer 2022.

[3] “Five Independent School Trends to Watch in 2021-2022,” NAIS Magazine, Fall 2021.

[4] “Projections: Three Facilities Trends That Take Us Beyond COVID,” Jeffrey Shields, President and CEO, National Business Officers Association,, April 18, 2022.

[5] “2022’s Top 5 Construction & Design Trends for Private Schools,” Horst Construction blog –

[6] “Purpose Learning: Reimagining What and How Students Learn,” NAIS Magazine, Winter 2022.

[7] “How forward-thinking, long-term cultural change can advance your school’s DEI initiatives: Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees,” Education Advisory Board blog, Feb. 10, 2021.

[8] Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, The MIT Press, 2017.

[9] “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond,” by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman, World Economic Forum, Jan. 14, 2016.

[10] “The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be people powered,” McKinsey & Company, January 2022.,they%20need%20to%20use%20them

[11] “On My Mind: Helping Schools Reclaim Their Why,” by Donna Orem, NAIS Magazine, Winter 2020.

[12] “Looking Beyond Today’s Industries and Jobs,” by Pamela Kwartler, MA, Independent Educational Consultants Association, Aug. 22, 2019.

[13] “4 trends that will shape the future of higher education,” World Economic Forum, Feb. 7, 2022.

[14] “College Enrollment Drops, Even as the Pandemic’s Effects Ebb,” The New York Times, May 26, 2022.

[15] “How Recent Events Reshaped College Admissions,” US News & World Report: Best Colleges, Aug. 18, 2021.

[16] “2020 Rankings Released: What Colleges Are Looking for in Applicants,” Independent Educational Consultants Association, Feb. 7, 2020.

[17] “The 4 Trends in 2021 College Admissions You Need to Know,” PrepScholar, June 1, 2021.