2023 Independent Schools Trends & Advice To Families And Schools For 2024

Photo: Rachel, Whiz, Bill, and Carolyn enjoying the new playground at Charles River School.

2023 Independent Schools Trends – and Advice to Families and Schools for 2024

Dear Families and Friends of McMillan Education,

As lifelong educators, the 20 of us are constantly trading notes with fellow educators and school leaders to stay current and refine our best school counseling practices during this volatile time period for independent schools. So as I do each January, let me recap major 2023 trends, and predict what lies ahead for 2024.

Last year we had the privilege of guiding 181 students from 15 states and 14 countries to 97 different independent schools, both Boston-area day schools, and boarding schools across the country, as well as a few abroad.  We revisited dozens of campuses, and hosted dozens more admissions officers and school leaders here in Boston, both for in-office meetings and for receptions we hosted in the spring, summer and fall. We also produced a series of videos with Admissions Directors to add to our Owl Boarding Schools Guide, and added two dozen more schools in what is the only unbiased, comprehensive directory of boarding schools. Finally, we teamed with colleagues in the school world to present on industry trends at national conferences, and were engaged by a handful of domestic and international school boards to offer curricular, school admissions, and college planning advice. Here’s what we saw:

2023 Independent School Trends

COVID Bump; COVID Correction

In general, highly and moderately selective schools continued to experience the COVID bump in applications as families were drawn to their close-knit communities and student-centered curricula, whereas less selective schools saw their 2021 peak COVID enrollment numbers dwindle due to a post-COVID correction and migration back to public, charter and online schools. A few small, enrollment-challenged schools even had to close their doors. This general division mirrors what we have seen on the private college front in recent years, with Ivy-like schools garnering a record number of applications, while some smaller liberal arts schools have struggled, and a few have even closed. 

Schools Struggle to Meet the Mental Health Crisis

A corollary to the above “COVID Bump; COVID Correction” trend is that some independent schools with smaller endowments saw higher levels of student attrition as they had to stretch beyond their core mission to accept full-pay students whose behavioral or cognitive needs were simply too great for the well-intending schools’ programming and personnel. This influx of students with mental health challenges resulted from a pair of factors: the ongoing mental health crisis exacerbated by COVID, as well as the significant constriction the therapeutic programs – which historically have best served students dealing with anxiety, depression or other mental health or behavioral needs – due to online misinformation, inaccurate media coverage, and corporate takeovers of these therapeutic programs. 

Parental Involvement has Increased Dramatically

During COVID, parents experienced a higher level of engagement in their children’s schooling as online learning brought school to the home. Since then, kids have gone back to school, and tuitions have continued to rise significantly. So not surprisingly, schools have found that parents’ expectations and requests have risen, both during the admissions process, and after enrollment. This extra engagement is partly fueled by a natural parental desire for their children to succeed in the increasingly competitive, longer-term college admissions landscape. What’s critical is that schools and parents reconcile a balance so that students don’t fall victim to a culture of achievement that hinders children’s healthy development, as Jennifer Wallace points out in Never Enough, When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-and What We Can Do About It . Our entire team studied her findings during a team retreat so we could best support our current parents and their children, and Sarah joined Wallace to give advice to school leaders on how to best mitigate this phenomenon on campuses. 

What should Families do in 2024? 

  1. Apply to Independent School When Your Child is Ready – even if Your Timing isn’t Traditional. More and more schools are understanding that students may need to apply for the coming fall after the traditional mid-January application deadline has passed. More schools, especially boarding schools, are also realizing that more students are best served applying for mid-year entry, or as a repeat student who needs an extra year, or for only 11th or 12th grade. A child’s developmental needs don’t always conform to the traditional schedule. Last fall we placed over three dozen school candidates who came to us AFTER January.
  2. Whenever you choose to apply, Choose Fit over Prestige. Some students are ready to take on the fast pace of a highly selective school, but when we leverage our expertise to find the best match, we emphasize the importance of connecting with an appropriate peer group, receiving the right level of support, and ensuring the potential to thrive – rather than just survive – at a new school. That’s why we don’t “rank” schools in our Owl Boarding School guide. Year after year the college outcomes of our older students bear out this truth: big fish in smaller ponds grow in healthier ways, and subsequently earn the best college choices. 
  3. Cast a Wide Net and apply to a broad range of schools, since we are seeing that in this  test optional world, admissions decisions are harder to predict since they are based even more on subjective factors like character, leadership, interviews, teacher recs and essays (although performance in the classroom is still #1). Plus, as we explained above, COVID led to an application bump at many schools.
  4. Consider Boarding Schools if your child needs the extra learning support or moderate mental health counseling since the 24/7 community of a boarding school allows for this  for holistic help, as well as an even greater exposure to interpersonal interaction (and less screen time!). And given the scarcity of Boston day schools – and how few of them emphasize learning support in their core mission – the chances of finding acceptances at schools that will best support your child are much greater in the broader boarding school universe. 

What should independent schools do in 2024? 

As we enter 2024, schools will need to remain nimble, much like they were creative when COVID hit, as we foresee a sea of uncertainty this year. The number of children and teenagers is plummeting, and some families who “rented” the private school experience during COVID have reverted to public or online education. Yet application numbers remain sky high at selective schools. To handle these current challanges, school leaders will need to apply the quick-thinking liberal arts soft skills that they teach.

In 2024 successful schools will:

  1. Simplify, Rather than Further Complicate, Admissions Procedures and Platforms. Often we meet a family, determine independent school would help their child – then find them discouraged by the complexity of the process. Whereas our more mature, college-bound students lean on a streamlined Common Application, our school-bound kids muddle through several application platforms, including an additional one introduced in the Boston area this year.
  2. Offer a Realistic Level of Additional Behavioral and Learning Support to better serve this cohort of COVID-disrupted learners without stretching too thin and compromising their core mission. Likewise, schools will need to refine their admissions practices to vet student appropriateness for their programming in order to minimize the risk of student attrition. We applaud those schools who have already found this balance by adding support services within the scope of their capabilities.
  3. Take Advantage of the Advent of AI to lean less on written essays in the admissions evaluation process, since they could be compromised by ChatGPT, and rely more on authentic assessments like videos, portfolios, projects, and in-person evaluation such as extended interviews or on-the-spot writing. For students who need support, neuropsychological exams provide tremendously helpful data and narratives.
  4. Seek a Broader Range of Mission-Appropriate Domestic Students to plan for another potential drop in international applications due to domestic politics, geopolitical unrest, concerns about safety, and a strong dollar. For example, we’re a ballistic missile away from visas being curtailed for the deepest pool of applicants, in China. 
  5. Temper the Above-Mentioned Parental Anxiety by Moderating the Quantity of Admissions Events. COVID spawned an entirely new set of online admissions events and “experiences.”  While schools have earnestly tried to meet increased parental demands by offering these additional opportunities for interface, and often insisted that families don’t need to attend every single event, our parents are regularly sharing with us that they feel overwhelmed – compelled to attend the athletic department Zoom then the current parents’ online panel then the Head’s Hello on top of the in-person Open House, visit and interview.  While schools may intend to be helpful in meeting parental demands, they are actually fueling parental anxiety and demands, which then continue into the post-acceptance stage. We were pleased to be able to present with admissions experts at our industry’s national conference to explore this balance between admission office practices and parental demands, so that the right boundaries will better serve both parties.

Here’s to a Healthy 2024 for Schools and Children

We wish our current families and friends and colleagues in the school world a happy and healthy 2024, and we look forward to tackling these challenges together in pursuit of our common goal: finding the right campus communities for children and adolescents, so they can thrive and grow surrounded by caring adult mentors and teachers. To that end, we have adopted the Voltarian theme of Cultivate Our Garden this year. So allow me to give Voltaire’s Candide the last word: May your own garden bloom bright in 2024.

About The Author

Don McMillan, M.A., M.F.A.