Unpacking the Birth Rate Decline: Opportunities for Independent Schools

by Peter Baron

A few weeks back, I wrote this newsletter on the implications of declining birth rates on independent schools. Unexpectedly, hundreds of people read the post, far more than I ever expected.

Maybe this is an issue that’s on people’s minds.

Again, as I mentioned in the post, the impact of birth rate declines is regional or city-specific, and if you’re in a part of the country where lots of families are moving, this may not be top of mind.

But if you’re in a city experiencing population loss, birth rate decline may be more relevant.

Or if you’re a school with a high application volume, it’s reasonable to assume you aren’t too concerned (now) with the trend.

However, for many schools, a potential shrinking of the traditional applicant pool may put more emphasis on enrollment strategy.

How do we respond to the decline?

Do we prepare for fewer students in our applicant pools, or do we start thinking about expanding our reach by developing strategies to recruit students who aren’t currently considering independent schools?

I vote for the latter.

The numbers are pretty compelling.

Fifty-five million students attend K-12 schools in the United States, and approximately five million attend fee-based schools. Focus the lens even more, and just north of 700,000 attend NAIS member schools (as reported in 2019-2020).

So, how do we expand our reach to the ~54 million students who aren’t enrolled in NAIS member schools?

What if we grew the pool by 3% over the next five years? 210,000 more students would benefit from the transformational outcomes that are part of our DNA.

So, how do we get there in a mission-aligned way?

My guess is there’s no one path for schools.

You could develop or acquire an external program to expand your market, similar to The Village School of Naples’ acquisition of the college guidance service, Quest for Success. While allowing for enhanced services for its families, it extended its reach to students not enrolled in the school by providing college guidance to the broader community while creating a larger brand presence.

Or you could borrow a page from the Providence Country Day School. They created an online program to work with students outside of their catchment area AND developed a certificate program to work with students overseas.

Or you could create a different experience for families by offering students program-specific, a la carte ways to engage with the school.

As mentioned above, the path will differ for each school and should emerge from the mission.

So what’s your take? Are you considering expanding your market instead of preparing for a potential contraction? I would love to hear from you.

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