Business Intelligence: Benchmarking for Small Schools

Modest changes that might not phase larger schools can impact smaller schools significantly.

Nov 17, 2021

From the November/December 2021 Net Assets Magazine.


Article by Elizabeth Dabney

Small independent K-12 schools — defined here as those with fewer than 300 students enrolled — operate in a different context than larger schools and may have distinct financial or operational concerns. A small change in the number of students enrolled or a slight increase in operational expenses can have an outsized impact on the financial health of a small school.

Below I focus on a few key data points that can help small schools better understand their financial position, benchmark against their peers and gauge their financial sustainability. The data is drawn from 73 small schools that submitted 2019-20 data points to Business Intelligence for Independent Schools (BIIS). These 73 schools are mostly day schools (76%) and represent all regions of the United States. Two schools are in Canada.

Students and Employees

The median enrollment at small schools in 2019-20 was 179 students. 31% of students at small schools received need-based financial aid, 4% received merit aid/scholarships and 4% received tuition remission. These schools reported a median of 44 full-time equivalent employees for a median students-to-all-employees ratio of 3.9.

Gross Tuition and Fees and Net Tuition Revenue

The median gross tuition and fees per student at small schools was $28,247 in 2019-20. The median discount per student was $4,576. The median net tuition revenue per student, or gross tuition and fees per student less all forms of financial aid, was $22,641.


Like most independent schools, net tuition and fees were the main source of income for small schools in 2019-20, at 71% of revenue. The proportion of revenue from annual giving was 8%. Median annual giving per student was $1,476. Auxiliary activities, including summer programs, accounted for 5% of revenue. Many of these schools (75%) reported having dollars in an endowment fund, and endowment draw made up 4% of revenue. Median endowment per student was $4,914.

Expenses and Debt

Expenses should be managed throughout the year to ensure smooth operations and adequate cash flow. Total payroll and benefits for all school employees was the largest operating expense for small schools, at 66% of expenditures in 2019-20. Instructional costs were 9% of expenses, and administrative costs were 6%. Small schools maintained a median of 49,506 gross square feet among their buildings, and facilities expenses were 7% of expenditures. Median debt per student was $7,159. These small schools had a median of 76 days of cash on hand (based on total expenses divided by 260 operating days).

Net Assets

Total net assets consist of assets minus liabilities. Total net assets give a general sense of a school’s overall financial value. The median net assets per student among small schools in 2019-20 was $56,716.

Carefully monitoring resources, from dollars to square feet to staff, while demonstrating a strong value proposition to their communities is critical for small schools. Independent school leaders can find these and other metrics of independent school financial health in NBOA’s Business Intelligence for Independent School (BIIS) data platform. Be sure your school participates in annual data collection so you can use benchmarking tools and data reporting resources such as the Composite Financial Index (CFI) calculator and the NBOA Financial Dashboard for Independent Schools.

Elizabeth Dabney is NBOA’s director, research and data analysis. elizabeth.dabney@nboa.org



years is the target ceiling for a school plant's financial "age."

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