Understanding the New Student Population


When my children went back to school last month, I couldn’t help but notice the new faces in the audience during the morning assembly for parents and students. As a researcher, I always find it fascinating to see how national demographic trends are reflected in my children’s school, particularly in the younger grades.

That’s where demographic changes are occurring at a faster pace than experts previously expected, and these shifts are having a direct impact on the student population and enrollment numbers at independent schools.
Wondering what demographic trends your school should track? I suggest paying attention to the following four.

The Decline of the White Student Population

Consider a main finding of the 2010 Census: The number of white children had decreased by 4.3 million since 2000,according to the report “America’s Diverse Future: Initial Glimpses at the U.S. Child Population from the 2010 Census” by the Brookings Institution. This report cites three factors to explain the decline:
  • lower fertility rates of white women (1.9 births per woman, compared with 3.0 births per Hispanic woman),
  • low immigration numbers of whites (15 percent from 2000 to 2009, versus 78 percent for Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities), and
  • the aging of the white population (in 2013, the median age of whites was 42, compared to 28 for Hispanics, 33 for African Americans, and 36 for Asians, the Pew Research Center reported).
All of these factors indicate that the number of white children will continue to decline or register minimal gains for several decades. This trend is evident when looking at the changes in NAIS schools. The latest DASL numbers show the sharp decline in the white student population from 74 percent in 2005-2006 to 62 percent in 2015-2016.
These changes may be more dramatic depending on your school’s location. The NAIS Demographic Center projects that by 2021, the number of white students will decline in several metro areas:
  • San Francisco (-6.08 percent),
  • Los Angeles (-5.73 percent),
  • Greensboro, NC (-4.19 percent),
  • New York (-3.74 percent),
  • Chicago (-3.29 percent),
  • Seattle (-3.29 percent),
  • Atlanta (-3.03 percent),
  • Philadelphia (-3.03 percent),
  • Dallas (-2.97 percent), and
  • Washington, DC (-2.56 percent).
If your school is located in an area where the vast majority of students has been traditionally white, you may have some challenges achieving your enrollment numbers. To share an example, in 2013, when my daughter started   Pre-K, the graduating eighth-grade class in her school was 77 percent Caucasian, compared with only 46 percent in Pre-K. Indeed, I’ve seen an influx of new Hispanic and Asian families where I live, a change that takes me to the next two trends.

Hispanics: Born in the USA

While new immigration from Latin America continues to be significant, it has dropped since the middle of the last decade. As a result, the number of immigrants from Asia has surpassed that of Hispanic immigrants since at least 2009, as reported by the Pew Research Center. However, while the share of Hispanic immigrants has decreased, the rapid growth in the number of Latino births has guaranteed a steady increase in the Hispanic population.
In fact, U.S. births have been driving Hispanic growth since 2000, according to Pew. The number of Hispanic children increased by 4.8 million from 2000 and 2010, the Brookings Institution reported. This increase was also the reason that the nation’s child population didn’t decline in that period.
New Census projections estimate that by 2020, fewer than half of all children in the United States will be non-Hispanic White — remember that Hispanics represent an ethnic group and can be of any racial group, including Caucasian. By 2050, an estimated 31.9 percent of U.S. children will be Hispanic (up from 25 percent in 2015), and 39 percent will be non-Hispanic White (down from 52 percent in 2015).
demographics forecast.jpg

Private schools are a strong presence in many Latin American countries, so it may be easier to explain to Hispanic families the advantages of choosing an independent school over a public school. These parents can also be advocates for independent schools and help schools find more Hispanic families.
According to demographers, by around 2020, more than half of the children in the U.S. are expected to be part of a minority racial or ethnic group. At that point, Americans under 18 will be the front of a trend that the overall population will follow some 20 years later. By 2044, the Census Bureau predicts that no one racial or ethnic group will constitute the majority in the country.
But the new population also comprises Asian students, as we’ll see in the next trend.

The Newcomers: Asian Families

Historically, Asian American students have had an important presence in NAIS schools. In 2015-2016, they represented 10 percent of the total enrollment and 37 percent of students of color, the largest group among students of color, according to DASL.
demographics infographic.jpg
These growing numbers reflect the national trends. The U.S. Census reported that between 2000 and 2010, Asian Americans recorded the fastest growth of any racial group at 46 percent. Moreover, projections by the Pew Research Center indicate that the Asian American population will continue to grow more rapidly than the U.S. population overall, reaching 41 million in 2050.
Immigration is driving this growth. In 2012 alone, 74 percent of Asian adults were foreign born and international migration accounted for about 61 percent of the total change in the Asian American population from 2012 to 2013,according to the Pew Research Center.
What do these trends mean for our schools? Depending on the country of origin, the new Asian families may or may not be familiar with independent schools. You may need to explain what differentiates an independent school from other private and public school options and the advantages that your offerings have in developing children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Also, you may need to clarify certain school practices, such as participating in school events and fund-raising activities.

A Generational Divide? Millennial vs. Baby Boomer Parents

In April 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau released new numbers estimating that Millennials had surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. Millennials, born after 1980, now number 75.4 million, compared with 74.9 million Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964).
This means that soon the vast majority of current and prospective parents will be Millennials. Although it’s still early, experts see behavioral trends that differentiate Millennials from previous generations and may shape the way they select a school for their children. Below are some characteristics of Millennials:
  • Are used to 24/7 interactions, where “better, faster, cheaper, and customized” are the norms.
  • Most racially diverse generation in American history: 43 percent of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation
  • Most educated generation to date. However, many Millennials struggle with student debt.
  • Feel pressure to be great parents: 80 percent of Millennial mothers believe that it’s important to be “the perfect mom,” compared with about 70 percent of Gen X mothers. Also, 64 percent of mothers across age groups said that they believe parenting is more competitive today than it used to be, Time magazine reported.
  • Most likely among all generational groups to support school choice (75 percent), in particular charter schools which support is disproportionately high (85 percent), according to American Federation for Children and Beck Research.
  • Twice as likely as Boomers to say they most often look for instruction from Google and for advice from their social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and apps), according to Time.
  • More pragmatic as consumers. Before having children, 57 percent of their buying decisions are based on quality; after parenthood, this number is just above 50 percent, says MillennialMarketing.com.
These characteristics suggest that Millennial parents may be looking at a different type of school and education for their children — an option sufficiently innovative to prepare their children for an unknown future.

How Your School Can Respond to These Trends

Today, more than ever, it is vital to monitor the demographics of your school population and how they compare to those of your area. You can use the NAIS Demographic Center and DASL to create comparison reports. Use these questions as a guide:
  • What are the student population trends in the zip codes where you draw your students?
  • How is the racial/ethnic makeup of your pool of prospective families changing?
  • What are the projections of your student population in the next five years?
  • Is it time to seek out new markets to find students?
If your school is located in an area with an influx of newcomers, develop an understanding of the educational expectations of the new community members and a plan to reach out to them. Evaluate the channels you use for attracting, recruiting, and communicating with parents. Identify areas that may need fine-tuning. Do not assume that parents are familiar with the admission process and giving practices. Be transparent about the application process, and clearly explain the role of giving at your school.
When surveying parents, identify the key aspects, programs, and services that attract them to your school and ask how you are performing on each. Evaluate your strengths and areas for improvement. Understand how your school’s offerings fare against those of other types of schools in your market.
In the case of Millennial parents, your parent surveys can reveal how they differ from other generations of parents at your school. Your “coffee and chat” session may help you keep abreast of their needs and wants. You can also assess your communication channels to make sure they still fit their preferences or are the most effective ways to reach them. Consider ways to show them the value of the student experience at your school versus other options.
When it comes to planning for demographic shifts, some schools are out in front. On my children’s first day of school, for example, I caught a moment alone with the chair of the finance committee who told me that the school’s enrollment and finance committees had started discussing the school’s demographic trends and their impact on admission and finance. I was glad to hear they were already in back-to-school mode!

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