The Private School Market Is Overwhelmingly a Small-School Market

Senior Editor

Selling into private schools in the U.S. often means having to sell into small schools.

That’s one of the incontrovertible takeaways from a new trove of data about private schools released by the National Center for Education Statistics, the chief statistical office of the U.S. Department of Education.

Private elementary and secondary schools serve a total of about 4.9 million students today, roughly one-tenth of the 50 million served by U.S. public schools.

Of the 34,576 total private schools, the vast majority, 87 percent of them, serve fewer than 300 students, according to the federal data. And the biggest proportion of private schools, 46.3 percent, are very small–enrolling fewer than 50 students.

Just 6 percent of private schools have more than 500 students.

Here’s the full breakdown below:

As we’ve reported, a strong majority of public school districts in the United States are pretty small: 70 percent serve 2,500 or fewer students. But compared with the private school sector, most individual public schools tend to serve larger populations of students.

While the federal data doesn’t allow for an exact comparison with private schools by size — the enrollment sizes of private and public schools are broken down differently — it’s clear there are pretty stark differences between the two school types.

Just 10 percent of the 98,176 public schools, for instance, enroll fewer than 100 students, NCES data show.  Only 30 percent serve fewer than 300. The biggest chunk of publics, nearly 40 percent of them, are a bit larger, serving between 300 and 600 students.

A few other data nuggets from NCES’ private school report:

  • The largest proportion of private schools, 32.8 percent, are found in the South, a region where enrollment stands at 1.65 million students. The Midwest has 26 percent of private school students; the Northeast, 22.5 percent; and the West, 18.8 percent.
  • The largest population of students in the private school K-12 pipeline, by far, is found in kindergarten, with an enrollment of 466,475. The numbers are fairly evenly distributed after that. First and 6th grades are the only other ones that top 372,000.
  • The largest number of private schools, 12,662, are found in suburban locations, followed by cities (11,476), rural areas (7,539) and towns (2,900). But urban areas still enroll the largest percentage of students, 43.7 percent, with 2.1 million students.

Here’s another tidbit about the private school market: Its overall enrollment is projected to decline. The number of students in private schools is projected to fall from 5.4 million in 2013 to 5.090 million in 2025, according to a separate federal report. (See table  105.30.) Public school enrollment, by contrast, is projected to climb from 50 million to 51.4 million over that same time. (These enrollment numbers include pre-K student populations.)

So if much of the private school market is concentrated in small schools, what does this mean for vendors working in the K-12 market?

Many companies may be inclined to stay away from a sector where the opportunity to scale up quickly is limited. But if they decide to test the waters, the most successful companies are probably likely to try to gain a foothold in networks or associations of private schools, which may share information with each other, formally or informally, about the K-12 vendors they like. Those organizations could include associations of religious schools, or groups of non-sectarian ones.

And of course, where larger vendors see barriers, smaller ones may find opportunities. Working in private schools can offer an entry point for companies trying to build a name for their products, without having to go through the long and difficult, RFP-driven procurement process favored by many public districts.

Check out the full NCES report to get a broader picture of the private school landscape.


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