From the Director: By the Numbers through a National Lens

How does University School of Nashville compare to its national peers? Take a look at this comparison of tuition, faculty salaries, philanthropy, test scores, diversity, enrollment, need-based financial aid, and retention, among other notable numbers.
Greetings from Chicago and the annual member gathering for INDEX, the Independent School Data Exchange. For our Chief Financial Officer Teresa Standard, who sits on the board of this invitation-only organization of 160+leading schools something like ours nationwide, and for me, it’s a command performance. We are in a big stodgy room at the venerable University Club here next to Millennium Park, and we grind through a composite data set 180 pages long. I am figuring you might want to hear where USN stacks up and where we’re outliers. There’s a story in the numbers.
Let’s start with the trinity of tuition, faculty salaries, and philanthropic support. That permits us to connect the source of our revenues (90% from tuition for us), the destination of those dollars (73% for personnel expenses), and the giving that comes our way across constituencies to underwrite the whole effort. When adjusted for cost of living factors, we charge in the bottom third of all schools in our INDEX cohort — it may not feel like a bargain in your household, but those are the facts. Pair that figure with our faculty compensation remaining in the top quarter of the same group, and I find cause for some very good feelings.
Then realize that our endowment, fast-growing though it surely is, only barely gets us out of the bottom quartile. Our annual giving absolutely keeps pace with leading schools nationwide, doing the work of endowment yet to materialize at USN. We’re top 10 in Annual Fund participation across all constituents groups — faculty, Board of Trustees, parents, grandparents, alumni, and parents of alumni. If you’d like to see the details there, be on the lookout for the Report on Philanthropy coming to mailboxes this week and please appreciate the difference those gifts make. Still, there’s no substitute for us managing every dollar that comes our way to keep paying teachers better without just charging more because other schools do.
Now on to admissions and our enrollment picture. To some extent, we’ve won the geographic lottery by being here in Nashville, an observation confirmed by my recent coffee break conversation with the head of an otherwise pretty amazing school in Minnesota. We’re among the most selective, accepting only 30% of applicants. And in terms of yield, with 79% of those we invite to join us saying “yes” (even after subtracting out those on financial aid waitlists that we don’t have resources to reach). Our 22% figure of students on need-based aid places us just slightly in the bottom half of the group, most of whom charge far more than we do and spend more than the 14% of the total budget that we spend on financial aid.
But maybe most interesting/impressive of all is our attrition figure — the percent of all students who choose NOT to reenroll from last year to this — at a remarkable 2.9% well, well below the mean, and for our students of color, even lower at 2.4%. These numbers certainly speak to our commitment to students and families and their commitment to USN when we’re working for more than 97%.
The diversity of our student and faculty populations, at roughly 39% and 19% respectively, places us in the top quarter for both but does not diminish the urgency that we feel for continuing to better represent our city’s population to the fullest extent we can and for bringing those two figures in closer proximity. Conversations about how best to fulfill those goals are among the highlights of this whole gathering, in the company of thoughtful colleagues from coast to coast. Fair to say that those coasts have advantages we’ve yet to enjoy.
Sparing you the details of our physical plant reserves, health insurance spending, and administrator/teacher ratios, encouraging though those figures may be among hundreds of other indicators for us, let me close with some academic numbers. In the midst of a lively conversation about Advanced Placement courses in our High School, I was a little surprised to see that we are solidly at the high end of the pack in terms of students taking AP exams as a percentage of our enrollment— we open the door wide to participation, without much of a corresponding decrease in average scores. And while we don’t often trumpet our ACT numbers or devote copious hours to test prep, our average combined score of 30 puts us in the handful at the top of this membership.
Mashing all the data together toward a single-sentence summary, I’d be left to say USN is a place that charges in the bottom third, pays in the top quarter, achieves in the top quintile, draws a beautifully diverse pool of applicants, then admits about a third of those young people, of whom four-fifths then decide to and are able to enroll, and almost no one chooses to leave. No time to spike the football, but we do have a worthy story to share. It’s a tale of hard work by very good, caring people, dedicated together to providing compelling opportunities and then making something of that which we’ve been given.
Making sense of the numbers will occupy lots and lots of time for us on the management side in coming weeks, but it seemed right to share this preliminary set of impressions. If you’d like to dig deeper via coffee and a conversation, I’m always game. The more we know, the better off we’ll be.
See you at Artclectic, right?
    • Director Vince Durnan is attending the INDEX Conference to digest data shared among independent schools across the nation.

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