Independent Schools feeling the pinch in Lower School enrollment

By William Diskin posted 10-23-2017 18:37


Admission Office folks at independent schools across the country are shifting into high gear.  The blur that is November through April is upon us.  As we are about to step into the whirlwind of open houses, campus tours, student interviews, and parent phone calls, let’s take a moment to take stock of where we are and what the new admission season might have in store.

Here at Cannon School in North Carolina, we’ve spent the past couple months or so reviewing the forces at play that are giving us all heartburn each time we look closely at our Lower School enrollment numbers.

We all want to jump to the conclusion that dips in population have reduced the numbers of elementary school-aged children. And while that might have been true in some areas around the country for a bit (birthrates stalled in the year or two following the great recession) a close look at the NAIS demographic center data actually show projected growth in the numbers of school-aged children through 2022.

So, if the pool of prospective students is still sufficiently deep, why are so many of us feeling the pinch when we compare our lower school inquiries and applications numbers to three or five years ago?

There are lots of theories out there.  The two possibilities that we’re studying relate to price and competition.

First, middle and upper middle-class families are letting us know that they are being squeezed by the rising costs of healthcare, childcare, and other cost of living items (think groceries, home maintenance, taxes, etc.).  As a result, many are balking at Lower School tuition numbers at independent schools.

We hear prospective parents saying things like “…our local public elementary school is safe – and the kids can walk to school” or “we’ll look at the independent school for middle school, but our local public school is good enough for now.”  For these parents, schools that are safe enough and good enough – and are also free – are hard to ignore.

Add that mentality to the reality that there are now more school options than ever in the history of our country – and it’s not too hard to see why our lower schools are shrinking.  New charter schools are opening every year – many with long wait lists and plans to expand to full blown K-12 programs.  Public schools are establishing magnet programs that funnel lots of talented students into language immersion or STEM-focused schools with good faculty and great test scores

And while it has not taken hold here in North Carolina (yet!), we are hearing from colleagues around the country that programs like AltSchool and other online school options are attracting families with their high-tech, innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

So, as we start the process of building relationships with a new set of prospective parents and students, we are aware of the challenges we face.  More than ever – and more clearly than ever – we need to articulate the benefits of an independent school education to families.  That famous question we hear in our sleep – “What is our value proposition?” – is as relevant as ever. 

We know we are better than good enough.  And we know our schools are worth the investment.  But with market forces playing against us – we need to be more prepared than ever to show prospective parents why the independent school option is the best option for their family.

Got ideas on how you and your admission team will do this in the weeks and months ahead?  Share them!

Bill Diskin

William D. Diskin

Director of Admission

and Financial Aid

Cannon School





08-29-2018 15:15

Happy to report that, one year later, we are far more comfortable with our Lower School enrollment.  Not that we are out of the woods -- but we have reached levels in JrK and K that will put us in a good position as those students move into Grades 1 and 2, etc.   Hoping last year was a blip -- but remaining cautious and aggressive.

01-25-2018 14:42

Great job Bill. I've been watching the "views" ticker on this for months and see it continues to grow, just went over 1,300! Kudos to you and thanks for all that you do for the profession.  I'd love to hear more people answer your call for more ideas to share..and just comments in general.  A quick "edgy" internal question for folks/faculties to consider: what percentage of your faculty would send their own children to the school if they had to pay full tuition...assuming they had the $ resources with some financial pain, stretching and sacrifice.  Ask those "yeses" why and the "no's" the same.  Keep results (as much as possible) confidential but use for marketing committee discussion. The results could lead to some good discussion and might even surprise you.

10-24-2017 16:57

"Develop raving fans!"  That's definitely the goal!  We just got a note from a parent of a new student who told us that she came for a campus tour during the application process certain that she was not going to like our school.  But by the end of the tour, she was convinced that she had found the right place for her daughter.  She's now a raving fan!

10-24-2017 11:26

From Heather Hoerle, Executive Director at The Enrollment Management Association, at SAIS Conference 2017: "In this complex and challenging environment, what will separate successful schools from those that struggle (and perhaps close) is the ability to deliver consistently on mission, demonstrate the value for the investment, and develop "raving fans." My personal favorite...develop raving fans.