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.”