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Independent School Retention Starts Now

What keeps admission professionals up at night?
The most common answer? "Retention."

More and more, independent schools are increasingly worried about retention. It’s a downright scary concept for admission professionals. You spend months guiding a family through your admission process, working to determine fit, getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of the student, and recognizing those unique contributions each new student will bring. It’s hard not to get attached.

Then, all of a sudden, in August, you are expected to “turn them over” to the rest of the school and sever your relationship. (*It is shocking how many teams we’ve talked with that feel like this is happening). It keeps you up at night because you care about your school, you believe in what you do, and you know just how strong and valuable those relationships are.

Perhaps what’s most problematic about this approach is the fact that while we are expected to be focused on “this year” in admissions, “this year” is solely predicated on “last year(s)” kids as the student body. You know… retention.

It’s a hard place to be in the admissions office when you have to focus on finding next year’s kids, but you don’t know if last year’s kids are going to stick around.

Starting your retention efforts at the beginning of the school year ensures that positive momentum is built (and maintained), creating a fulfilling experience for all students and families.

Retention starts now. Are you ready?

What is a good independent school retention rate?

The ideal retention rate for independent schools would be 100%, but practically, very few schools achieve this figure. However, "good" retention rates can vary widely depending on several factors, including your school's geographical location, grade levels offered, specific niche or focus, and more.

Here are some general insights into retention in schools:

  •         Average Retention Rates: According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the average retention rate for member schools was around 90%. If your school's retention rate is close to or above this figure, it's generally considered good.
  •         Grade-Level Specifics: Retention can vary significantly based on grade level. For instance, transitions between major school divisions (e.g., elementary to middle school or middle to high school) often see a drop in retention.
  •         Type of School: Boarding schools might have different retention dynamics than day schools. Similarly, schools with specialized missions might see different retention patterns.
  •         Economic and Local Factors: Schools in regions with economic downturns or rapidly changing demographics might experience shifts in retention. A school in a highly transient area (like those near military bases or tech hubs), where families move regularly for jobs or other reasons, might have a different definition of a "good" retention rate.
  •         Benchmarking: It's crucial to benchmark your retention rate against schools that are similar to yours. If similar schools in your region or within your niche have an 85% retention rate, and yours is 88%, you're doing relatively well.

While it's beneficial to know and understand average rates, it's essential for schools to focus on continuous improvement. Even if a school's retention rate is above average, there's always room to enhance the student and family experience. It's important to remember that while retention rates are a valuable metric, they're just one piece of the puzzle.

Building a Family Retention Strategy | Finalsite

Admissions vs. Enrollment

Maybe it’s time to stop being siloed by the brand of “Admissions” and start truly being recognized as “Enrollment Management.” Admission focuses on ‘"this year" and the class that will directly impact your current budget cycle. Enrollment management is focused on the future and the impact future student bodies will have on your school and its budget.

In the most basic terms:

  •         Admissions = Tactical
  •         Enrollment Management = Strategic

So, as we think about retention, the ongoing responsibility can’t exclude you. Enrollment management is key; you must be involved in strategic planning and execution for success. Your school should systematically look at the foundation number in your school's enrollment management system.

Ask yourself:

  •         Who are we trying to keep?
  •         Why are they important to our school’s make-up?
  •         What will our process be to keep them engaged?
  •         How will we enact our retention process?

As you review files in the next few months, start thinking of the students you are looking at as “graduates” and consider the role you'll continue to play in getting them there. And remember, the relationship with these families is not a 1-year transaction.

Keep Reading: Danger Ahead: Danger Ahead: Early Warning Signs of Attrition for Schools

Year-long Retention Efforts for Independent Schools

Retention is a year-round effort and should be a constant focus of your enrollment goals. It's  essential right from the beginning of the school year:

Foundational Trust

The beginning of the school year sets the tone. Positive experiences during the initial phases, such as a smooth orientation, timely communication, and welcoming activities, lay a strong foundation for trust. When families feel supported and informed from the outset, they're more likely to remain engaged and committed throughout the year.

Early Intervention

Challenges, whether academic, social, or administrative, will inevitably arise. A proactive, year-round retention effort ensures that your school can identify and address potential red flags early before they escalate. This is especially vital at the beginning of the year, as timely interventions can prevent minor issues from becoming significant problems.

Holistic Development

Education is not just about test scores and academic achievement. Social growth, emotional development, and character-building are equally important. A consistent focus on retention means that your school continually ensures that all aspects of student well-being are addressed. Initiatives launched at the start of the year, such as mentorship programs or social skills workshops, can have lasting positive impacts.

Resource Optimization

Retaining students is generally more cost-effective than recruiting new ones. A year-round focus ensures that resources allocated to retention—like student support services, parent engagement activities, or extracurricular programs—are optimized and effectively used. Schools can allocate their resources better in the long run by setting a clear retention strategy at the beginning of the year.

Community Building

A strong sense of community is integral to retention. Year-round efforts, especially those initiated at the start, like community events or collaborative projects, strengthen bonds between students, families, and educators. When individuals feel they're part of a larger community, they're more inclined to stay.


Consistency in messaging, support, and school culture is key to retention. When schools emphasize retention throughout the year, it underscores their commitment to every student's success.

Key Takeaway

Retention is not just about preventing student turnover; it's about nurturing a supportive, engaging, and vibrant school environment. This year (and every year) your school can create an environment where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally, thus ensuring families remain committed.

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