By Jeff Mitchell, Currey Ingram Academy
In May of 2021, I wrote a FastStats highlighting the Impact of the Pandemic on Important School Indicators. With the world moving so fast, including for our schools, it is not too soon for a follow-up article.
In the previous FastStats, I concluded that the SAIS region “… relative to most regions across the country, has fared very well in this year of the pandemic. I believe the political and cultural climate of the southeast, and the concomitant decision making that prevailed in our schools to be more ‘normal,’ led to a disproportionately higher number of schools in SAIS being in-person, with more typical campus activities — and we were rewarded by an eager market that spurred enrollment increases, without the need for increased financial aid.”
I went on to say, “It will be interesting to look at subsequent years’ data to see whether the relative benefits from the pandemic our region has enjoyed are sustained.” When I wrote this, I was thinking I would revisit the topic in subsequent years. But the impact on major school indicators was even more profound this year than last year, and the findings are informative.
Specifically, this FastStats focuses on:
As in the previous article, and to focus squarely on data that demonstrates the differentiated impact of the past two years, a percent change calculation is used. For this article, the average percent change for FY21 and FY22 (FY21 + FY22 / 2) is compared to the average percent change over the four previous years – FY17 to FY20 (FY17 + FY18 + FY19 + FY20 / 4). This approach allows us to be more certain that changes are unique to the last two years.
Figure 1 compares the impact of the pandemic on enrollment for SAIS schools versus its impact all NAIS schools. For FY17 to FY20, NAIS schools saw an average annual decrease in enrollment of -1.11%. For FY21 to FY22, enrollment increased by an average of 2.44%. Moreover, the median NAIS enrollment is up over 5% for FY22 alone. Not only does this halt a 20-year trend of decreasing enrollment, but it is also indicative of a major surge in enrollment in independent schools across the country.
This trend is even more pronounced in SAIS schools. FY17 to FY20 saw an average annual increase in enrollment of 0.03%, whereas over the past two years enrollment has increased by 4.08%, with an increase this year of a rather astonishing 7.25%. Therefore, NAIS and SAIS schools are truly enjoying enrollment booms, especially this year. In fact, after reviewing the trend data for the past 30 years, no year matches the growth of FY22.
Figure 2 shows the impact of the pandemic on tuition for SAIS schools versus all NAIS schools. For FY17 to FY20, NAIS schools saw an average annual increase in tuition of 4.01%. For FY21 to FY22, tuition increased by 3.21%. For SAIS schools, FY17 to FY20 saw an average annual increase in tuition of 3.97%, whereas for FY21 to FY22 tuition increased by 4.15%. Exploring further, it is interesting to note that although the NAIS FY21 to FY22 average is, not surprisingly, a little lower than the historic trend, most of that moderation is due to a very modest average tuition median increase of 2.68% in FY22. Thus, despite 30-year high inflation levels, it seems that NAIS schools preferred modest tuition increases.
The opposite is the case for SAIS schools. For FY22, SAIS averaged a near 20-year high tuition increase of 5.17%. Compared with the 2.68% increase in NAIS schools, the 5.17% is clearly indicative of a different conversation happening in SAIS schools. I would speculate that a much larger proportion of SAIS schools had psychologically (and actually) moved on from the troubles of the past two years, and it may have been the case that their relative normalcy led SAIS schools not to be fearful of aggressive tuition increases.
Figure 3 shows the impact on faculty salaries. I wondered whether historically strong enrollment for FY21 and FY22 would lead to historically strong increases to faculty salaries. Considering previous FastStats have shown that median increases to faculty salaries across NAIS and SAIS schools have not kept pace with inflation, would the same be the case during this enrollment surge, especially considering this bubble of high inflation we are experiencing?
Figure 3 shows that this is not really the case. For NAIS schools, the median salary increase has moderated in the past two years (1.27%) relative to the previous three years (1.65%). In SAIS schools, there has been a more positive trend, with a jump from 1.23% for FY17 to FY20, to 2.24% for FY21 to FY22. Schools across the country are likely hesitant to make a long-term commitment to stronger faculty salaries based on a still uncertain situation.
Financial Aid Amount
Figure 4 shows the impact on financial aid amount. For FY17 to FY20, NAIS schools saw an average annual increase in financial aid funding of 4.25%. For the past two years, financial aid funding increased by 6.34%. With only a small drop from last year (6.89%) to this year (5.80%). For SAIS schools, the previous three years saw an average annual increase in financial aid funding of 3.43%, whereas during the past two years, financial aid funding increased by 2.44%. Not much of a difference. However, in FY21 financial aid funding decreased relative to the previous three years by 2.26%, whereas in FY22 there was a substantial 7.13% increase relative to FY17 to FY20.
For FY21, financial aid funding seemed to have a lot more to do with bolstering enrollment in NAIS schools than it did in SAIS schools. But for FY22, SAIS schools caught up and then some, indicating that SAIS schools quickly became more comfortable distributing aid that undoubtedly contributed to stronger enrollment.
Financial Aid Count
Supporting the conclusions from the financial aid funding analyses, Figure 5 shows the impact on financial aid count. For FY17 to FY20, NAIS schools saw an average annual increase in financial aid count of 0.72%. For FY21 to FY22, financial aid count increased by a significant 7.78%. Moreover, in FY22 alone, the median financial aid count for NAIS schools increased by 12.37%. That is an attention-grabbing increase.
For SAIS schools, and as Figure 5 depicts, the trend for the past two years did not vary much from the trend for the previous three years. It is very clear that NAIS schools, outside of the SAIS, were much more likely to increase the number of students who received financial aid. Part of that increase can be explained by the increase in enrollment (5.46%). More students, all things being equal, means more students on financial aid. But the count seems to suggest that proportionally more students are receiving financial aid.
It is also interesting for SAIS schools. As noted, median enrollment growth has spiked to 7.25% in FY22. However, the enrollment increase does not seem to correspond to a spike in the number of students receiving financial aid. In fact, it seems that a smaller proportion of students in SAIS schools are receiving financial aid in FY22 than in the recent past.
A final area to look at is philanthropy. Specifically, how has annual giving been impacted in the past two years? Are our communities more grateful and is it showing via philanthropy?
Figure 6 shows annual giving. In NAIS schools, for FY17 to FY20, annual giving increased an average of 0.49%. For FY21, annual giving increased by 10.24%. Another high-water mark compared with the last 20-30 years. As with financial aid, the increase cannot fully be explained by the increase in enrollment, especially because this data was from FY21, where the enrollment increase was not nearly as strong as in FY22. Thus, there seems to be a disproportionate amount of support in the form of annual giving for NAIS schools, perhaps due to appreciation over how schools were handling the pandemic.
For SAIS schools, there does not seem to be much influence on annual giving. Although there is a strong increase for FY21 (6.87%), it is not all that much different from the average for the previous three years (5.35%). Indeed, once the disproportionate increase in enrollment is considered, annual giving seems to be down on a per student basis.
Figure 7 sheds light on annual giving trends from Figure 6 by highlighting the impact on parent participation in annual giving. For both NAIS and SAIS schools, parent participation in annual giving has been on a downward trend for the past five years, although in the past two years that trend slowed in NAIS schools but increased in SAIS schools. Five years ago, 68% of parents were participating in annual giving at NAIS schools and in FY21, 60% of parents participated. For SAIS schools, the drop has been from 62% to 53%.
Due to this trend starting prior to the pandemic and staying relatively stable over the past two years, the explanation seems to lie beyond the specific influence of the past two years. After thinking about possible explanations, I still have no viable reason for such a precipitous drop.
To only Rip Van Winkle’s surprise, the past two years have had a dramatic impact on some of our most important indicators.
Enrollment is booming – up 5% in NAIS schools and 7.25% in SAIS schools. In NAIS schools, tuition increases have moderated compared with the trend for the past 20 years, whereas, in SAIS schools’ tuition increases have stayed steady. Faculty salaries have not yet benefited from increased enrollment. The median total amount of financial aid distributed has increased modestly across NAIS schools but has stayed the same in SAIS schools. The number of students receiving financial aid in NAIS schools is up significantly, yet stable in SAIS schools. For annual giving, NAIS schools have seen a nice increase in the median total giving. SAIS schools have also seen a nice increase in giving, but the increase for the past two years is in line with the previous three years. Finally, both NAIS and SAIS schools have seen a marked drop in parent participation in annual giving over the past five years, and the past two years have not had much of an influence on that trend.
The overarching conclusion is that both NAIS and SAIS schools are experiencing relative booms, especially with enrollment. The past two years have seen 30-year data trends halted and reversed. What has not happened is the growth in enrollment resulting in a distinctly positive impact on secondary indicators like faculty salaries and annual giving.
A strategic question on most of our minds is what will be the true and lasting impact of the past two years? Are we just a shelter from the storm? Or have we permanently wooed a segment of the population onto our campuses? A look at subsequent years data will tell the tale.
Dr. Jeff Mitchell has served as the head of school at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, Tennessee, since 2014. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology; a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision; and a PhD in human learning, development, and instruction. Jeff has previous experience with St. George’s School in Vancouver, Park Tudor in Indianapolis, and Tuscaloosa Academy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Jeff is currently a member of the SAIS board of trustees.
Currey Ingram Academy is an exemplary K-12 day and boarding school that empowers students with learning differences to reach their fullest potential. Since 2002, the school has been located on an 83-acre campus in Brentwood, Tennessee. At Currey Ingram Academy we settle for nothing less than being a global leader for students with learning differences. By promoting strengths and supporting differences, our students receive the education they truly deserve.
 The reader should note that the DASL data for these measures are from the previous year because a school does not know how much it receives in annual giving or how many people participated until the end of the year.
In this recording, we joined SAIS President Debra Wilson for the new Trustee Education Series focused on best practices in independent school governance, including boundaries, confidentiality, committee structure, and more. The curriculum is designed for heads of school, board chairs, and trustees.