As overall consumer preferences and parent/caregiver school search behaviors continue to evolve, school marketing, communications, and admissions professionals need actional data for benchmarking their budgets, staffing sizes, and family recruitment tactics, to ensure you don’t get left behind. There are also a number of headwinds facing private and independent schools as we exit the acute stage of the pandemic. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, public charter schools have continued a decade-long growth pattern and were the only school type to see enrollment growth during the pandemic. Online schools (both public and private), Christian schools, and homeschooling have also gained traction as more and more families support school choice and seek a higher level of involvement in both how and what their children learn. As a result, the competitive landscape is shaping up to be very different from what you may have been accustomed to in the past. This is also why Niche often focuses on industry-wide K-12 research. In today’s landscape, independent schools don’t only compete with independent schools. Religious schools don’t only compete with religious schools. Boarding schools don’t only compete with boarding schools. And so on, and so on. The landscape is more complex than that.
In addition, at the time of this writing, families are dealing with record inflation, declining home values, fluctuating fuel prices, and a laundry list of other economic factors that can make some families more reluctant to add or keep schools that charge tuition in their household budgets. Enrollment in K–12 schools is predicted to plateau nationally through the 2020s, and while the U.S. birth rate increased for the first time in seven years in 2021, that doesn’t compensate for the years-long decline that began in 2007. How schools tell their stories, share their missions, and demonstrate value to prospective families is more important than ever.
The Time for Schools to Invest in Their Teams is Now
Confronting the challenges mentioned above (and the inevitable surprises that surface over the course of a school year) requires a strong team. While the department of one is still very common, the 22% of schools that reported increases in enrollment staff and the 24% that reported increases in marketing and communications staff give us hope that more professionals in these areas will be given opportunities to expand their teams and more effectively take on new and emerging changes in their fields. One thing to keep an eye on is staff retention—24% of respondents shared that marketing and communications turnover was an issue for their institutions and 27% said that enrollment/admissions turnover was an issue.
In more encouraging news, 53% of respondents reported increased importance for enrollment and admissions roles and 63% reported an increase in importance for marketing and communications roles. Similar numbers are cited in the public school survey report, showing that the long days and hard work marketing and enrollment professionals have been putting in during the past few years have not gone unnoticed. Workloads are only increasing, and schools across categories will need to continue to prioritize hiring and retaining savvy, adaptable marketing and enrollment professionals to advance their missions and help them to meet their institutional goals.
The “Covid Bump” May Be Coming to an End
While inquiries and applications are still up for many schools, the number of schools that failed to meet their enrollment goals by the typical June 1 contract binding date has increased and more than half of respondents said that increasing overall enrollment is a priority in 2022-23. Interest is not enough—schools will need to continue to think about how they convert inquiries and applications to (happily) enrolled families, and that may require new approaches beyond what has worked in the past.
Meeting Prospective Families Where They Are
Despite many discussions about a hybrid approach to admissions events being part of the “new normal,” many schools have de-prioritized virtual programming beyond virtual tours. Meeting families where they are is a critical component to both recruiting and retaining students, and that means offering a range of options for families to engage with a school. Virtual events (including webinars) are inexpensive, efficient, and convenient for parents and caregivers who can’t always make it to campus. They can also be beneficial to families who are relocating from another area as they research and compare schools. While there may not currently be a need to fire on all virtual cylinders as admission offices did during the more acute stage of the pandemic, having some options for families who can’t get to campus (or may not yet be ready to visit) can be a solid practice. As you think about parent engagement in the coming months, make sure decisions about changing formats are grounded in data and your current and prospective families’ needs.
Digital Marketing is the Clear Winner for Impact
Digital marketing budgets are continuing to rise, and rightly so. When asked about the impact of their digital marketing efforts, 4% of private and independent schools said that digital marketing was less effective than last year, 34% said it was about the same, and 64% said it was more effective. In contrast, 17% of schools said traditional marketing was less effective than last year, 35% said it was more effective, and 49% said that it was about the same. The next step is optimization.
As a start, schools will need to make sure that they switch to Google Analytics 4 ASAP to avoid unnecessary delays and issues with reporting. Schools also need to increase the frequency of reviewing their budgets—the 57% of schools that are reviewing their digital marketing budgets annually, bi-annually, or not at all are missing out. Digital marketing bridges and campaign performance need to be reviewed and optimized constantly to maximize performance and to ensure that your school isn’t leaving money on the table. If you aren’t able to manage that in-house, consider outsourcing it to an agency or reaching out to Niche’s Digitial Marketing Services team for support.
Methodology and Respondent Profile
There were 646 individual, completed responses collected between August 17, 2022, and September 6, 2022, 526 of which were from private and independent schools. The survey was distributed via email to all PK-12 school contacts in the Niche database and additional participants were recruited through digital advertising. Fifty-five percent of respondents were from religiously affiliated private/independent day schools, 26% were from non-sectarian private/independent day schools, 10% were from boarding schools or boarding schools with day offerings, 3% were from Montessori schools, 3% were from schools serving students with learning differences or special needs, 2% were from online private schools, and less than 1% were from Waldorf schools.
The majority of respondents (41%) reported a total enrollment of fewer than 250 students. Larger schools, with an enrollment of 1,000 students or more, accounted for 6% of responses.
School enrollment breakdown:
Fewer than 250 – 41%
251-500 – 34%
501-750 – 11%
751-1,000 – 8%
More than 1,000 – 6%
Most of the responding schools were located in suburban (44%) and urban (29%) environments; 16% were in towns, and 11% were in rural settings. Thirty-nine percent were located in the South, 20% were in the West, 20% were in the Northeast, 17% were in the Midwest, and 4% did not disclose their location in the U.S.
Enrollment staffing numbers were fairly consistent with 2021, with 44% of responding schools reporting one full-time employee (FTE) dedicated to enrollment/admissions, and 23% reporting none.
The numbers for marketing and communications staff were very similar. Thirty-six percent of respondents reported having one FTE dedicated to marketing and communications, while 43% reported having none. Thirty-six percent of schools reported having one full-time employee dedicated to marketing and communications while 43% reported having none.
Also similar to last year, school size did not have an impact on enrollment and marketing FTE numbers—schools with fewer than 250 enrolled students were almost as likely as schools with 1,000 students or more to have 3-4 full-time employees in enrollment and marketing roles.
School type impacted staffing numbers again for 2022, with religious private/independent day schools being the most likely to report having zero (26%) or one (21%) full-time marketing and communications employee. Religious private/independent day schools were also the most likely to report having zero (15%) or one (25%) full-time enrollment/admissions employees. Although at a small percentage (3%), boarding schools were the most likely to report having five or more full-time employees dedicated to enrollment/admissions.
Half of the respondents reported having zero part-time enrollment/admissions staff, 32% reported having one, 13% had two, 2% had three, 2% had five or more, and less than 1% had four. In marketing, more than half of respondents reported having zero part-time employees, 36% reported having one, 9% reported having two, 3% reported having three, and less than 1% reported having four or more. Religious private/independent day schools were the most likely to have part-time resources for enrollment/admissions work with 18% reporting having one part-time employee and 8% having two. Religious private/independent day schools were also most likely to have part-time resources for marketing and communications, with 23% reporting having one part-time employee and 5% having two.
Similar to last year, we wanted to find out about headcount changes in school enrollment and marcom offices, and an additional question was added to gauge the impact of staff turnover in PK-12 schools. Seventy-four percent of responding schools reported that enrollment staffing had remained about the same, 22% reported increases in staff, and 4% reported decreases in staff. Religious private/independent day schools (14%) were most likely to report staffing increases. Seventy-three percent of schools reported that turnover for enrollment/admissions roles had not been an issue, while 20% reported it was a small issue and 7% reported it was a significant issue. Religious private/independent day schools (10%) were most likely to report that enrollment staff turnover was a small issue.
Forty-four percent of respondents reported having a dedicated marketing communications office, a slight increase from 2021. Twenty-one percent reported having a shared admissions and marketing staff member, 20% reported that admissions was responsible for marketing, 3% reported having a teacher or faculty member responsible for marketing and less than 1% reported having a volunteer in this role.
Seventy-one percent of respondents shared that headcounts for marketing and communications roles had remained about the same, 24% reported increases in staff, and 6% reported decreases. Religious private/independent day schools (14%) were the most likely to report increases. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that marketing and communications staff turnover was not an issue, 17% said it was a small issue, and 7% said it was a significant issue.
Another addition to this year’s survey was a question about how the perception of enrollment and marketing communications roles changed over the past year as marcom professionals faced new communications challenges and many admission offices navigated increased market demand. Fifty-three percent of respondents said that enrollment and admissions-related roles increased in importance, 45% said there had been no change and 1% said the roles had decreased in importance. Religious private/independent day schools (29%) and non-sectarian private/independent day schools (13%) were the most likely to report an increase in importance.
Sixty-three percent of respondents said that the role of marketing and communications professionals had increased in importance, 35% reported no change, and 2% reported a decrease in importance. Religious private/independent day schools (35%) and non-religious private/independent day schools (14%) were the most likely to report an increase in importance.
We also asked about the relationships between the admissions and marketing departments at schools. Forty-eight percent reported that the relationship between the two departments was excellent at their schools, 20% said they were good, 5% said they were fair and less than 1% said they were poor. Twenty-seven percent did not have separate departments for marketing and admissions. Religious (26%) and non-religious (13%) private/independent day schools were the most likely to report an excellent relationship between their marketing and admissions departments.
Private and independent schools continued to see increased interest from families heading into the fall of 2022. Excluding the 1% of respondents who did not share enrollment performance information, 25% of schools reported seeing significantly more inquiries than in the fall of 2021, and 20% reported receiving significantly more applications. Only 2% reported significantly fewer inquiries and applications. Religious private/independent schools (36%) were the most likely to report increases in inquiries and applications (32%).
There were also notable patterns by region. Twenty-five percent of schools in the South reported increases in inquiries and 13% of schools in the Northeast reported increases in inquiries. Twenty-four percent of southern schools reported increases in applications and 12% of schools in the Northeast reported increases in applications.
Nearly 40% of respondents achieved their goals for newly enrolled students by June 1, 2022, while 36% did not. This is a decline from 2021 when more than half of respondents reported achieving their goals for newly-enrolled students by their contract binding date and 21% did not. Nine percent shared that their contract binding date had not yet passed during the survey response period. Sixteen percent of schools reported that they had achieved their enrollment goals for the fall of 2022 and that their schools were full and at capacity. Southern schools were favored again in this area—17% achieved their enrollment goals for the fall of 2022 by their contract binding date and 7% reported being full and at capacity. However, at 12%, schools in the South were also more likely to report that they hadn’t achieved their enrollment goals before their contract binding date.
Yield and Retention
In general, schools once again did a solid job of converting the families who applied for enrollment going into the fall of 2022. Forty-four percent reported that their yield (the percentage of families who gained acceptance for admission and ultimately enrolled) was about the same (within 10%) as last year, while 30% reported a slightly higher yield and 13% reported a significantly higher yield.
However, cracks were showing for retention. Forty-one percent of schools reported that attrition was about the same compared to last year, which is close to the 42% of schools that reported stable attrition in 2021. However, 31% reported that their attrition increased from last year, compared with 22% in the 2021 survey.
Priorities for 2022-23
This year we added a question about enrollment priorities for 2022-23. Sixty-one percent of respondents said that retention was a priority and 52% are prioritizing increasing overall enrollment. Forty percent of schools want to increase applications, and 35% want to increase inquiries and prioritize school branding.
A common narrative last year was that family recruitment would be forever changed by the Covid-19 pandemic and that schools would continue to use a hybrid approach to recruiting and engaging with families once operations returned to normalcy. However, only 33% of respondents reported that they are still offering virtual events to prospective families beyond virtual tours. Among the schools that are still hosting virtual admissions events, 23% are hosting live presentations, 12% are hosting live panels, and 10% are using pre-recorded webinar-style events. Fifty-five percent of schools are still offering a virtual tour or visit experience for families.
When asked about event budgets, 38% reported having no assigned budget, compared to 32% in 2021. Religious private/independent schools (20%) were the most likely to report having no assigned budget for admission events.
In 2021, we were surprised to see that only 37% of total respondents, across school categories, were surveying families after they enrolled. In 2022, there hasn’t been much improvement on that front. Thirty-two percent of private school survey respondents reported that they survey families after they’ve gone through the admission process, 62% do not, and 6% did not know. This is particularly interesting in contrast with public schools, as 51% of public school district and charter school respondents said that they do survey parents after they’ve enrolled. While the processes are different, the stakes are arguably higher for private schools to gather critical feedback from newly-enrolled families (or families who make a different choice) on their admissions processes and how new families experience their communities.
In this portion of the survey, once again we looked at the tactics that schools are using to recruit new students, the tactics they are planning to increase investment in, and the tactics they are planning to reduce investment in. We also compare the differences between traditional and digital marketing tactics and the budgets for each.
The percentage of schools with no assigned budget for traditional marketing was tied with the percentage of schools with budgets of more than $20,000 at 22%. Religious private/independent schools (9%) and non-religious private/independent schools (8%) were the most likely to have budgets of more than $20,000. At 13%, religious private/independent schools were also the most likely to have no assigned budget at all.
When asked how frequently traditional marketing budgets were reviewed and reassessed over the course of an academic year, among the respondents who chose to answer the question, 39% reported adjusting their budgets annually, 12% reported adjusting their budgets twice a year, and 11% reported never reviewing or adjusting their budgets at all.
In 2021, nearly half of schools reported that their spending on traditional marketing was about the same (within 10%), 33% reported a decrease in spending, and only 18% of schools increased their spending on traditional marketing last year. In 2022, among private and independent schools, 51% said that spending on traditional marketing was about the same, 19% of respondents reported decreasing spending on traditional marketing methods, and 30% reported increased spending on traditional marketing methods.
Printed materials remained popular among survey respondents for student recruitment, with some signs of decline. Brochures and viewbooks (68%) were the most popular traditional marketing tactic for respondents, but with a 3% decline from 2021. Print ads in local publications were also common at 61%, but with a 4% decline from 2021. Word-of-mouth drivers like parent ambassadors increased from 53% to 56% and community partnerships increased from 41% to 44% to round out the top traditional marketing tactics used by private and independent schools during the last year.
Religious private/independent schools were the most likely to use all of the most popular traditional marketing tactics included in the survey, with 62% using direct mail, 56% using brochures and viewbooks, 55% using parent ambassadors, 54% using community partnerships/sponsorships, and 48% using school fairs.
Similar to public schools, private and independent schools remained committed to many of their existing traditional marketing tactics as we enter the 2022-23 school year—30% are planning to increase investment in parent ambassador programs, 27% are planning to increase investment in community partnerships/sponsorships, and 23% are planning to increase investment in viewbooks and brochures. Although 61% of schools reported using print ads in local publications in the last year, that tactic is once again at the top of the list for reduced investment, with 27% planning to invest less in these kinds of ads in 2022-23.
Of course, a big question is, are any of these tactics working? While 49% of schools reported that the effectiveness of their traditional marketing tactics was about the same compared to last year, 17% said it was less effective and 35% said it was more effective.
Similar to 2021, a higher percentage of schools (29% versus 22% for traditional marketing) reported having no assigned budget for digital marketing, but the gap is closing. In 2021, 31% of schools reported having no assigned budget for digital marketing, while 19% reported having no assigned budget for traditional marketing. While 22% of schools reported having budgets of more than $20,000 for traditional marketing, that number declined slightly to 18% for digital marketing. Religious (7%) and non-religious (6%) private/independent day schools were the most likely to have budgets of more than $20,000 for digital marketing. However, at 18%, religious private/independent day schools were also the most likely to have no assigned budget for digital marketing.
Among the schools that shared how frequently they review and update their digital marketing budgets, 37% reported reviewing their digital marketing budgets annually and 10% review their digital marketing budgets twice a year. Twenty-three percent review their digital marketing budgets more frequently, which is encouraging (and necessary). However, 10% reported that they review their digital marketing budgets “infrequently or never.”
Compared to the 30% of respondents who increased their spending on traditional marketing tactics in the last year, more than half increased their spending on digital marketing during the past year. Only 4% of schools reported decreasing spending on digital marketing, compared to the 19% who reported decreasing spending on traditional marketing.
Organic search (65%) and organic social media (62%) were the most popular digital marketing tactics used by responding private and independent schools to recruit new students last year. This is a shift from 2021 when paid social media and email marketing were the top two tactics. Use of organic search increased by 16% from 2021 and use of organic social media increased by 11%. Email marketing (53%), paid social media advertising (57%) and digital display advertising (53%) were also common, and all showed increases from 2021.
Similar to 2021, school responses regarding how they’re planning to spend their digital marketing budgets this year point to continued increased investment. Paid social media advertising was the top tactic for increased investment at 44%, followed by paid search (35%) and digital display ads (34%). Similar to public schools, an overwhelming majority of respondents (70%) shared that they do not plan to decrease investment in any of the digital marketing channels listed in the survey.
When asked about the impact of their digital marketing efforts, digital was the clear front-runner compared to traditional marketing—4% of schools said that digital marketing was less effective than last year, 34% said it was about the same, and 64% said it was more effective.