K–12 School Closings Disrupt Private School Application and Enrollment Trends

Father and daughter reviewing a private school admissions application on their tablet.

[This article first appeared in NetAssets.]

Following Massive Drops in March & April, Schools See Surge in Early Summer Activity

With historic, nationwide school closing and the shift to distance learning for many schools, most private schools (and those of us in the private school economy) expected an impact on applications and enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year. Several industry associations suggested that the pattern might follow 2008-2009 when schools saw an average of ten percent under-enrollment. But a look at aggregate data from Blackbaud Enrollment Management SystemTM uncovers some surprising trends: 

  1. After an expected collapse in application and contract activity in March, April, and May, the pace of these activities came roaring back in June and July. All the more unusual in that late spring and early summer are historically quiet for admissions activities.  
  2. Schools seem to have accelerated the contract process into February ahead of widespread school campus closures. It’s possible that some schools may have anticipated closure-based disruptions or had the calendar work in their favor.  

We’re also seeing the sharpest increases in states where COVID-19 cases seem to be on the rise (and thus school reopenings are in question).  

Applications 

Private schools experienced a sharp decline in new applications year-over-year in March, April, and May. This is not surprising given the uncertainty amid the historic shutdown of school campuses as well as the economy. However, spurred by “pandemic applicants,” application numbers rebounded in June and July with July seeing a 131 percent year-over-year increase! The increase nearly made up for the pandemic-induced slowdown with total year-over-year applications down a statistically insignificant one percent from January to July.  

A graph showing private school admission application trends in 2019 and 2020.

Contracts 

The data for contracts (precursor to enrollment) is perhaps even more interesting than what we’re seeing for applications. In February, we saw a surge in contracts that was six times the previous year, suggesting that many schools accelerated processing of contracts before distance learning (and remote work for faculty and staff) began in March.

As with applications, we saw a dropoff in March, April, and May (many families had signed their contracts in February) followed by a surge in June and July. The June and July surge suggests that existing families may have deferred acceptance and/or new families are taking a fresh look at private schools to fill their children’s educational needs for the 2020-2021 school year as reopening plans in many public districts remain unclear or don’t meet their needs.  

A graph showing private school contract submission trends in 2019 and 2020.

Regional Considerations  

As with the pandemic as a whole, these admissions and enrollment trends vary regionally with certain areas seeing more “pandemic applicants” and a surge in enrollment contracts than others. The Southeast is experiencing the largest impact of this phenomenon with states like Virginia, Tennessee, and Maryland seeing applications increase 25 percent year-over-year (shown below in the heatmap).

It’s possible with the late COVID-19 surge in mid-summer throughout the South that more public school districts are starting virtually in 2020-2021, prompting parents to evaluate their options. California is seeing similar trends with a nine percent increase in applications and a four percent increase in enrollment contracts. The central U.S. isn’t seeing as much late admissions interest as other areas. For example, in Arkansas, Indiana, and Oklahoma, applications have decreased since 2019.   

Take a look at the following heat map of year-over-year application numbers in private schools: 

A heat map of the United States showing year-over-year application numbers in private schools.

Summary 

There are many reasons that families choose to send their children to private schools. As we’ve seen with other private school trends, the disruption created by the pandemic isn’t likely to change those reasons, but it may be accelerating or magnifying private-school decisions based on COVID-19's impact in a region. 

As supporters of the industry, we’re encouraged that the worst of the bleak outlook predicted in March and April did not come to pass, but we’re also aware that results vary and the year ahead will continue to come with plenty of uncertainty. We also know that the K–12 school community will continue to rally in support of their students, teachers, and staff! 

About the Data 

Aggregate data was pulled from private schools in the United States using Blackbaud Enrollment Management System.  Schools that began using the solution in 2020 were excluded from the dataset. The data includes over 120,000 applications and over 500,000 enrollment contracts across nearly a thousand schools.  

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