Niche 2021 Survey of Parents Searching for High Schools

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This was the second year that Niche surveyed parents to learn about their school search experiences. The survey was open from August 27 to September 19, 2021, and was posted to Niche, sent to registered parents, and shared in the Niche Parents Facebook group. Results were segmented into preschool searchers, K-8 searchers, high school searchers, and college searchers. For high school searches, we received 856 responses from parents and guardians with a child who started in grades 9-12 in the fall of 2021.

A Few Key Results:

  • The most important factors that parents considered when searching for high schools were class sizes, teacher qualifications, and a school’s ranking. This is a change from 2020, when safety, teacher qualifications, and how challenging classes are were most important.
  • Despite broader availability of in-person instruction in the fall of 2021, 31% of families chose virtual learning; 8% due to academic concerns, and 23% due to safety concerns. 
  • 22% of families reported mental health/social-emotional challenges with their child(ren) due to COVID-19
  • There was an increased interest in STEM for families who searched for schools with a specific programmatic focus; 52% considered schools with a STEM focus in 2021 compared to 35% in 2020.

Fall 2021 High School Search Considerations 

For 73% of respondents who searched for schools in this age group, local schools were a factor in their decision regarding where to live. Sixty-three percent of families in this age group had students enrolled in public schools last year, and only 22% had children who attended school in person. 

Teacher qualifications (63%), class sizes, (62%), and school rankings (46%) were the most important factors families considered as they evaluated schools. Advanced placement opportunities (45%), college counseling services (43%), and social-emotional development (42%) were also important factors. All of these factors were of greatest importance to families with children enrolled in public schools last year, who were also the most likely to have the 2020-21 school year learning fully remotely or in a hybrid format. For the second year, International Baccalaureate opportunities were of the least importance to families. 

Importance of factors for choosing a high school
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Similar to 2020, the majority of families considered multiple schools, and 13% exclusively considered their local public schools. The duration of time for the consideration stage for high school families shrunk significantly going into the fall of 2021. At 42%, there was an increase from 2020 in families who didn’t start looking for schools until six months or less before they would enroll, with 20% beginning their school searches one year or more before enrollment.    

High school parent search timeline
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Compared to last year, consideration for public schools declined nearly 10% to 59%, while interest in religious private schools (32%), charter schools (32%), and non-religious private schools (31%) all increased. Interest in online public schools increased from 8% to 12%, and 10% of families considered homeschooling. Suburban families were the most likely to consider homeschooling. For families that considered schools with a particular specialization, STEM was once again the most popular at 52%, followed by fine and performing arts at 26%. 

The Takeaway

The shorter consideration window for families in this age group is a trend to watch as it is an indicator of decreased loyalty among families with high-school-aged children to their current schools. Families are ready and willing to make a change if they believe their current school is falling short in an area that’s important to them. In addition, similar to the results seen in the K-8 survey, families’ increased interest in STEM is good news for schools with that programmatic emphasis. Schools without a specific STEM focus that provide strong programming in this area can use marketing messages that emphasize it as an area of strength and consider family recruitment events that further highlight their offerings in this area. Finally, the same patterns regarding parent interest in non-public schools are also present for this age group—public school administrators should pay close attention to increased interest in private schools, charter schools, online public schools, and homeschooling.  

High School Enrollment Choices

Although families considered multiple school types, public schools were once again the top choice by a substantial margin, followed by religious and non-religious private schools. For families that chose to enroll their child(ren) in religious schools, Catholicism was the most popular religious affiliation by a significant margin. While 14% of those families chose an Evangelical Christian school in 2020, only 5% did in 2021. And while there was significant interest in STEM programming during the consideration phase for parents who search for a specific interest, 26% actually enrolled their child(ren) in schools with that emphasis. 

Ongoing Pandemic Impact

While 24% of respondents said that COVID-19 had not impacted their families in 2020, that increased to 37% in 2021. There were 15% who changed schools; 10% because of their previous school’s response to COVID-19 and 5% because of cost. There were 9% who chose to homeschool; 5% due to safety concerns and 4% due to academic concerns. Twenty-two percent of respondents shared that they experienced mental health/social-emotional challenges with their child(ren). 

There were 83% who said that their child(ren) were learning fully in-person, 9% who were fully remote/virtual, and 8% were learning in a hybrid format. Although in 2020 only remote education was rated as ineffective, 2021 data shows that families have experienced challenges as students returned to in-person instruction, and in some cases, another year of hybrid or fully remote learning. Six percent of families with children learning fully in-person, 3% of families with children learning in a hybrid format, and 3% of families with children learning fully remotely said that their child’s current learning environment was ineffective. Still, there is a silver lining—88% of respondents felt that their child(ren)’s current learning environment is effective and 91% of respondents said that they and their children felt supported by their teachers and administrators. 

The Takeaway

At 22%, high school searchers represented the highest percentage of families who said they experienced mental health/social-emotional challenges with their child(ren). And, similar to families in the K-8 age group, parents of high school students shared increased dissatisfaction with in-person and hybrid learning. The first data point presents an opportunity for high schools (and schools serving high school-aged) students to find ways to incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) and mental health support for students as they navigate a third school year impacted by COVID-19. Parents’ increased dissatisfaction with a wider range of learning formats shows that there is still room for improvement for schools to optimize instruction for the COVID-19 era. If your school has success stories in this area, make sure you’re showing and telling both current and prospective families about these successes across marketing and communications touchpoints.

Angela Brown

Angela Brown

Angela Brown joined Niche in 2021. Before joining Niche, she was director of marketing and communications at Flint Hill School in Virginia. In her role at Niche, Angela creates content, research, and insights to help PK-12 marketing, communications, and admissions professionals refine their strategies, hone their craft, and elevate their roles in schools. In addition to creating content for Enrollment Insights, Angela is a regular presenter, writer, and podcast guest. She is a member of the National School Public Relations Association, American Marketing Association, and The Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP), and serves on the Advisory Board for the Marcom Society, an exclusive online community for independent school marketing and communication professionals. Since November 2020, she has served as a judge for the Brilliance Awards, which honors marketing and communications work from PK-12 private schools around the world.

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