A boy in a COVID-19 mask is getting his temperature checked before entering his private school.

COVID-19 Continues to Impact Private School Applications

March 1, 2021

A recent study of private schools using The Enrollment Management Association’s Standard Application Online (SAO) reveals that COVID-19 is continuing to impact the admissions process significantly. In a year-over-year comparison of applications from September 2020 through January 2021—the typical application period for schools with fixed deadlines—applications are down 11 percent. 

What does this mean for families applying to the 2021–2022 school year?

To answer that question, let’s take a step back to review the impact of COVID-19 on private school applications as a whole. In 2020, the pandemic began influencing admissions in March with a 7 percent drop in applications through May. This dip was succeeded by a 63 percent surge in applications during the ordinarily quiet months of June through August—attributed mainly to families waiting to see what form education would take in the fall before making enrollment decisions.

As a result, our year-over-year comparison of applications from September to January is pitting the current admissions climate influenced by the pandemic against pre-COVID data, and it signals the potential for more uncertainty on the road ahead. 

Declining Private School Applications Amidst COVID-19

The 2021–2022 application period opened in September 2020 with a steep 28 percent decline in applications, likely due to families preoccupied with restarting school amidst COVID-19 restrictions. Applications picked up in October and were only down 2 percent in November, giving hope that they’d surge in December and January when traditional application deadlines came up.

A graph showing monthly variation of applications to private schools for school year 2021–22.

Instead, December applications dropped 16 percent, possibly due to the resurgence of COVID-19 around the holiday season. The volume did improve in January with a single-digit decrease of 8 percent, resulting in a total decline of 11 percent.

While the most selective schools are still highly competitive, the decline represents less competition overall, theoretically improving each family’s odds of acceptance. For families reevaluating their options after the March decision period, or those late to the admissions process, it also means that rolling admissions schools may still have openings. 

To help families better understand where enrollment opportunities may still exist, we further segmented the data into the following comparisons.

Domestic Versus International Applications

By the end of January 2021, the application split was 68 percent domestic and 32 percent international. Overall, domestic volume increased 1 percent while international volume decreased 28 percent. Due to the loss of international applicants, schools may admit more domestic students. It also signals a better opportunity for international families that applied as their competition is likely substantially reduced. 

A graph showing monthly variation of international versus domestic applications to private schools for school year 2021–22.

Boarding Versus Day Schools

The application pattern for day and boarding schools varied significantly; however, both resulted in an 11 percent decrease. The overall data suggests that there’s no advantage or disadvantage in applying to either school type, but keep in mind that some highly selective boarding schools might be more competitive due to steady or increased applications to those schools.

A graph showing monthly variation of day school versus boarding applications to private schools for school year 2021–22.

Applications by Grade Level

A graph showing monthly variation of applications to private schools by grade levels for school year 2021–22.

Most noticeable is that while applications to elementary, middle, and upper school levels decreased, those for postgraduate programs surged for a 57 percent increase. Similarly, applications to grades 11 and 12 increased approximately 10 percent, despite those for grades 9 and 10 decreasing by an average of 13 percent.

A graph showing monthly variation of high school applications to private schools for school year 2021–22.

The disruption to education over the last year from COVID-19 has high school families concerned about college preparedness, and they’re looking at private schools to bridge the learning gap. Considering that grades 11 and 12 aren’t typically entry years, and interest in postgraduate programs is up dramatically, families in this situation may need to cast a wider net than initially anticipated or rethink their college application plan. 

The Road Ahead

Overall, the decrease in private school applications signals opportunities for applying families. The big question is—how long will it last? 

The 2020 summer application surge was fueled by COVID-19 uncertainty, leading many public school families to look into in-person private school education as an alternative to remote learning. With COVID-19 vaccinations in the early stages of rollout, it’s fair to wonder whether 11 percent of applicants are still out there? Are the public school families that transitioned to private schools this year waiting to see how schooling looks for the fall before reapplying? Will a late surge come from international students if COVID-19 infections decrease and travel restrictions lighten? 

There’s too much uncertainty to predict application trends in the coming months, but we can encourage families considering private schools to act now while the trends are in your favor. 

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