These results are from a 2021 survey. If you’re looking for the most up-to-date resources, find them here for private & independent schools or here for districts, online charter schools, and public schools.
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School marketing and admissions are complicated, especially in PK-12. Different types of schools have widely varied needs based on their segment (charter, private, religious, public, etc.), location, and size. And when you’re an in-house marketing, communications, or admissions professional it can be hard to find comprehensive data to help you determine which tactics to use, how to build your team, where to spend your budget, or what your budget should look like.
At the same time, the ways that families are searching for and choosing schools are changing. The ongoing pandemic has revealed a desire among many families to make different choices about their children’s education, with a number of them changing schools during the past year or choosing to homeschool. Now, more than ever, school leaders need actionable insights to inform their plans for recruiting new families. That’s where this report comes in. In this first year for the report, we’ll focus on key data points about the state of enrollment and marketing based on what your peers shared about the 2020-21 recruitment cycle. Our goal is to help inform your planning as you set your budget for the next fiscal year, identify tactics to consider tweaking right now, and benchmark against other PK-12 schools nationwide.
Methodology and Respondent Profile
There were 760 completed and qualified responses collected from 773 total responses between July 20, 2021, and August 10, 2021. The survey was sent via email to all PK-12 school contacts in the Niche database. For standardization, inquiry, application, yield, and attrition data were captured as of June 1, 2021, the common enrollment contract binding date for private schools.
With respect to school type, religiously affiliated (52%) and nonsectarian private and independent (22%) schools represented the highest number of respondents:
- Religiously Affiliated Private/Independent Day Schools – 52%
- Nonsectarian Private/Independent Day Schools – 22%
- Charter Schools – 8%
- Boarding and Day Schools – 8%
- Montessori Schools – 4%
- Special Needs Schools – 2%
- Public Schools – 1%
- Online Private/Independent Schools – 1%
- Waldorf Schools – 1%
- Boarding Schools (residential only with no day school option) – <1%
- Online Public Schools <1%
Schools with a total enrollment of 500 students or less accounted for 70% of responses, with 40% reporting enrollment of fewer than 250 students. Larger schools, with an enrollment of 1,000 students or more, accounted for 9% of responses.
School enrollment breakdown:
- Fewer than 250 – 40%
- 251-500 – 29%
- 501-750 – 16%
- 751-1,000 – 6%
- More than 1,000 – 9%
The majority of the schools that responded reported charging annual tuition of less than $25,000, while 9% of responding schools reported not charging tuition at all.
School tuition breakdown:
- Less than $10,000 – 27%
- $10,000-$25,000 – 37%
- $25,001-$40,000 – 15%
- $40,001-$55,000 – 5%
- More than $55,000 – 6%
- We do not charge tuition at any grade level – 9%
Most of the responding schools were located in suburban (44%) and urban (26%) environments; 19% were located in towns, and 11% were located in rural environments.
Enrollment and Marketing Team Size
Because resources for enrollment and marketing in PK-12 schools are often limited, we wanted to assess how the composition of enrollment and marketing teams is changing and who is responsible for marketing activities at schools. According to the survey, many schools continue to be one-person shops (or less) when it comes to enrollment, admissions, and marketing. Forty-four percent of responding schools had one full-time employee dedicated to enrollment and admissions, but 28% had none at all. Forty percent of schools had one full-time employee dedicated to marketing, but 44% had none. However, school size did not have the expected impact on enrollment and marketing full-time employee (FTE) numbers—schools with fewer than 250 enrolled students were equally likely as students with 1,000 students or more to have 3-4 full-time employees in enrollment and marketing roles.
While school size didn’t have an impact on admissions and marketing team sizes, school type did. Nonsectarian private/independent day schools (12%), boarding and day schools (18%), and public schools (25%) were more likely to have three FTE’s dedicated to admissions and enrollment roles. Boarding and day schools (9%) were more likely to have four FTE’s dedicated to admissions and enrollment roles and a higher number of marketing and communications staff members. Nine percent of boarding and day schools reported having three FTE’s dedicated to marketing and communications, and 9% reported having four.
Shared part-time work was a slightly different story; 36% of schools had one part-time staff member working in admissions, 14% had two, 5% had three, and 2% had four. In marketing, 32% of schools had one part-time marketing and communications staff member, 13% had two, 2% had three, and less than 1% had four.
When we looked at the data for shared part-time work by school type, once again we found a few outliers. A higher percentage of nonsectarian private/independent day schools (48%), boarding and day schools (47%), and schools serving students with special needs (45%) reported having one part-time employee for admissions and enrollment work. A higher percentage of public schools (50%) and charter schools (33%) reported having two part-time employees in these roles. In marketing and communications, 12% of Montessori schools had one part-time employee, 4% had two part-time employees, and 4% had three part-time employees. Eighteen percent of schools serving students with special needs reported having one part-time employee in marketing and communications, 9% had two, and 9% had three. Twenty-five percent of charter schools reported having two part-time marketing and communications employees.
We also wanted to look at how headcounts changed last year. While 58% of schools reported no change to their enrollment and admissions headcounts, 32% percent of schools reported an increase in resources for these areas, from adding full- and part-time staff to existing enrollment and admissions teams to creating new positions dedicated to enrollment and admissions for the first time. A much smaller number of schools (9%) saw a reduction in headcount due to decreased enrollment demand resulting from the pandemic.
Even though many schools recognize the importance of having dedicated admissions and marketing professionals on staff, some continue to rely on other administrators (13%), teachers (3%), and volunteers (2%) to lead marketing efforts for their schools. Administrators cited as having responsibility for marketing included heads of school, principals, superintendents, business managers, and development professionals.
Schools are slowly but surely increasing their investments in dedicated admissions and marketing roles, particularly as some schools continue to see increased enrollment demand through the pandemic (described below). This is good news for overextended marketing and admissions professionals who aspire to grow their teams and mitigate burnout, particularly among nonsectarian private/independent day schools, boarding and day schools, and public schools, which are leading the way in this area. If the schools that are experiencing growth want to maintain that momentum, it would be wise to continue to invest in professionals with the skill sets needed to effectively position their institutions in the market and move prospective families through the admissions process. Schools that are not investing in these areas may be at risk of falling behind.
School closures and mixed results for distance learning caused a significant shift in PK-12 admissions going into the 2020-21 admissions season, as parents reconsidered their options for how and where to send their children to school. Thirty-two percent of schools reported significantly more (25%+) inquiries than in 2019-20 and previous years, and 27% of schools reported significantly more (25%+) applications. Only 4% of schools reported significantly fewer (25%+) inquiries and 3% reported significantly fewer (25%+) applications.
When it came to school type, a smaller percentage of boarding schools (2%) saw significant increases in inquiries and a smaller percentage of boarding schools (3%) and charter schools (12%) reported significant increases in applications. Forty-one percent of Montessori schools saw significant increases in inquiries last year.
More than half of schools achieved their goals for newly enrolled students by June 1, 2021, while 21% did not. Twenty-seven percent of schools shared that their contract binding dates had not yet passed during the survey response period.
Yield and Retention
Schools were fairly successful in converting the families who applied for enrollment in the fall of 2021. Forty-two percent of schools reported that their yield (the percentage of families who gained acceptance for admission and ultimately enrolled) was about the same (within 10%) compared to previous years, while 34% reported a slightly higher (10-15%) yield.
Overall, 42% of schools shared that attrition rates for 2020-21 were about the same (within 1%) compared to the previous year, 22% reported that attrition was slightly lower (1-5%), and 13% shared that their attrition was significantly lower (5%+). However, 15% of schools reported slightly higher (1-5%) attrition and 7% reported significantly higher (5%+) attrition than in the previous year.
There were a few outliers. Nonsectarian private/independent day schools (21%) reported attrition rates that were slightly higher than in previous years and charter schools (11%) reported attrition rates that were significantly higher than in previous years. A high percentage of Montessori schools (20%) reported attrition rates that were significantly lower than in previous years.
As schools work to reaffirm their value for the new families joining their communities this fall, continuing to nurture the families who joined during the 2020-21 school year should be part of every school’s retention strategy. Simply being open is no longer a differentiator for private schools, and the families who joined in the fall of 2020 are experiencing the second year at their new schools very differently from the first. After a year of cohorts and virtual events, and without the formal and informal social opportunities that help families feel connected to a community, these families are likely feeling untethered. Additionally, tuition payments that were easier to afford when opportunities for travel, extracurricular activities, and social events were more limited feel like a greater sacrifice than they did last year.
There are lessons here for public and charter schools as well—the long- and short-term impacts of declining enrollment on school funding can be detrimental to the students and teachers who remain at the schools.
The rise of virtual events last year was a big story for PK-12 schools in every segment. We wanted to know how schools were engaging with prospective families during the first full COVID admissions cycle and how budgets were allocated in light of the shift away from in-person events. While virtual events dominated industry discussions in 2020-21, 79% of schools still held in-person admissions events last year. However, schools recognized the importance of making virtual options available to prospective families, with many taking a variety of approaches to their admissions events last year:
- 25% hosted live panels in a virtual format
- 72% of schools offered virtual tour/visit options
- 33% offered pre-recorded virtual events
- 46% hosted live presentations in a virtual format
When it came to event budgets, 32% of schools reported having no assigned annual budget for admission events. Public schools (100%) and Montessori schools (45%) represented the highest percentages of schools with no assigned budget for events related to admissions and enrollment.
As the pandemic continues, the need for virtual admissions events can level the playing field for schools with smaller (or nonexistent) event budgets given their lower cost. They also create an opportunity for schools to reach families they would have lost in previous years because they simply couldn’t attend an in-person event. Logistics shouldn’t stand in the way of a family hearing a school’s story, and virtual events provide a solution to that problem. A hybrid approach to admissions events is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future, and prospective families will be grateful for it.
Although applicant surveys can be very valuable in helping schools understand how families are learning about them and how they experienced the admissions process, 63% of schools did not survey families after they’d gone through the admission process. Among the 37% of schools that did conduct a survey, more than half surveyed families that both enrolled at their schools and declined enrollment, 37% surveyed only families after they enrolled, and 8% only surveyed families after they declined enrollment.
The percentage of schools that are not performing applicant surveys for families who have gone through the admissions process reflects a missed opportunity. Taking a three-pronged approach to surveying families can provide invaluable insights into a school’s admissions processes and the parent/guardian experience, starting with an applicant survey, followed by a new family survey, and an annual parent satisfaction/engagement survey. Applicant surveys can help schools understand how prospective families are hearing about them, how they’re experiencing the admissions process, and why families who don’t enroll choose other schools or choose to remain with the schools their children already attend. Surveying new families can help uncover gaps between what is promised during the admissions process and what families experience once they enroll and help address pain points early in the school year before they become bigger problems later. An annual parent satisfaction/engagement survey provides a comprehensive pulse check on a school’s strengths and weaknesses. If they are executed well, the insights provided by all three are worth the time and effort to execute and analyze them.
In addition to the headcount information above, we looked at the tactics that schools are using to capture prospective families’ attention and the budgets that are allocated to those tactics. We also looked at what schools plan to invest in more and less this year, for both digital and traditional marketing.
Schools are persistently relying on traditional marketing channels to attract prospective families and have healthy budgets to support these efforts. While 19% of schools have no assigned budget for traditional marketing, 17% of schools have annual budgets greater than $20,000 for traditional marketing. Nonsectarian private/independent day schools (22%) and boarding and day schools (27%) were the most likely to have traditional marketing budgets in excess of $20,000.
Printed materials ranked high on the list of traditional marketing tactics used by schools to attract and enroll new students last year; 71% of schools used brochures and viewbooks, 65% used print ads in local publications, and 40% used direct mail. Parent ambassadors (53%), school fairs (47%), and community partnerships/sponsorships (41%) were also popular tactics for student recruitment.
Interestingly, the highest percentage of schools using brochures and viewbooks to attract and enroll new students were public schools (82%), followed by boarding and day schools (75%), and religiously affiliated private/independent day schools (75%). Nonsectarian private/independent day schools (72%) were most likely to use print ads in local publications, and public (82%) and charter (52%) schools were most likely to use direct mail. Nonsectarian private/independent day schools (64%) and schools serving students with special needs (62%) were well-represented among schools using parent ambassadors, while boarding and day schools (66%) were the heaviest users of school fairs. Community partnerships/sponsorships were most popular among public schools (73%).
Spending on traditional marketing remained largely flat, but there are signs of a decline; nearly half of schools reported that their spending on traditional marketing was about the same (within 10%), but 33% reported a decrease in spending. Only 18% of schools increased their spending on traditional marketing last year.
Despite their popularity, print ads in local publications (30%) were the top marketing tactic that schools plan to invest less in this year, with nonsectarian private/independent day schools (45%) leading the charge. Schools are committing more of their traditional marketing dollars to word-of-mouth drivers like parent ambassadors (32%) and community partnerships/sponsorships (29%) and to brochures/viewbooks (24%) this year.
Schools serving students with special needs (54%) and public schools (45%) expressed the greatest interest in increasing their investment in community partnerships/sponsorships.
Traditional tactics continue to be part of most schools’ marketing mixes in 2021, with nonsectarian private/independent day schools and boarding and day schools claiming the largest budgets. Viewbooks and print ads remain persistently popular despite their high costs and challenges in measuring ROI compared to other channels. Still, there are signs of a shift, with most schools reporting flat spending on traditional marketing channels last year and more than a third reporting a decrease in spending. Print advertising was also at the top of the list of channels schools are planning to invest in less, which is helpful to marketers and admissions professionals who have wanted to pull back in this area but have struggled to justify it.
As word-of-mouth tactics such as parent ambassador programs and community partnerships/sponsorships increase in popularity, schools must be even more strategic with the way these tactics are executed. For parent ambassadors, this means thoughtfully selecting and recruiting parents who are equipped with the training and support they need to be leaders in a school’s community. For community partnerships/sponsorships, it means aligning with organizations that connect to and reinforce a school’s brand and mission.
A much higher percentage of schools (31% vs. 19% for traditional marketing) reported having no assigned budget for digital marketing. And while 17% of schools reported budgets greater than $20,000 for traditional marketing, the number dipped to 13% for digital marketing.
Boarding and day schools (28%) and nonsectarian private/independent day schools (22%) were the most likely to report digital marketing budgets of $20,000 or more, while public schools (73%), charter schools (41%), and Montessori schools (44%) were most likely to report having no assigned budget for digital marketing at all.
Paid social media and email marketing (tied at 56%) were the most popular forms of digital marketing used by schools to attract and enroll new students, followed by organic social (51%), organic search (using SEO) (49%), digital display ads (44%), and school search platforms like Niche (39%).
When digital marketing tactics were reviewed by segment, nonsectarian private/independent day schools and boarding and day schools were experimenting with the broadest range of tactics for attracting and enrolling new students. Nonsectarian private/independent day schools (64%), boarding and day schools (63%), and religiously affiliated private/independent schools (57%) were the heaviest users of paid social. Email marketing was most popular among public schools (82%), nonsectarian private/independent day schools (62%), and boarding and day schools (62%).
A high percentage of nonsectarian private/independent day schools (67%) and public schools (64%) reported using organic social last year. Sixty-seven percent of nonsectarian private/independent day schools, 62% of schools serving students with special needs, and 60% of boarding and day schools used organic search (using SEO). Fifty-nine percent of nonsectarian private/independent day schools used digital display advertising, and 58% of boarding and day schools and 48% of non-sectarian private/independent day schools used school search platforms like Niche.
An indicator that more schools are seeing the value of digital marketing is that 56% of schools increased spending on digital marketing last year, which is a stark contrast with the 18% of schools that increased spending on traditional channels. Only 5% of schools reported decreases in spending on digital marketing, compared to 33% of schools that decreased spending on traditional marketing tactics.
As we look at how schools are planning to spend their digital marketing budgets this year, all signs continue to point to increased investment—with a few contradictions. However, in general, only a small number of schools shared plans to decrease their spending on the digital marketing tactics listed in the survey.
Schools serving students with special needs (23%) and Montessori schools (11%) expressed the highest interest in investing less in digital display ads, while charter schools (39%), public schools (36%), and religiously affiliated private/independent schools (32%) showed the greatest interest in increasing their spending in this area. Public schools represented the highest percentage of respondents who plan to invest both more (55%) and less (36%) in email marketing.
The percentage of schools that reported having no assigned budget for digital marketing is an indicator that digital marketing is still both an emerging area for PK-12 schools and one that may require more budget justification than more established, traditional marketing. Still, plans to increase spending point to a desire to shift more resources to digital marketing this year, particularly digital display ads and email marketing. The challenge will come down to measuring ROI and attribution. Marketers (or individuals who are responsible for marketing roles at their schools) who are able to connect their digital marketing efforts to inquiries, applications, and ideally, enrollments, will be best positioned to advocate for more resources in this area.