There are a number of issues facing independent schools in the 21st century and although many of them are interrelated, the one getting the most attention is Sustainability. An independent school is completely dependent upon funding of its operating budget through tuition revenue, fund raising, and investment earnings. The discussion of sustainability is far more than just a “fad topic.” The discussion of sustainability is an imperative for all independent schools.
I recently heard the head of a very prominent independent school in the South say that his admissions staff was struggling with the change from managing demand to managing enrollment. For many of our schools, the admissions process has in the past been more about managing the demand than it has been about a managing a comprehensive enrollment strategy. This has not been the case for many schools, of course, in that enrollment concerns have always persisted in certain segments of the independent school world. However, even for the schools where the focus has been on managing demand, the sustainability imperative will make it necessary to develop and implement a comprehensive enrollment management strategy.
Enrollment Management focuses on the entire process of recruitment and marketing, the admissions process, the administration of financial aid, and retention of mission appropriate students. Our job as enrollment managers is to tell the school’s story so that a prospective student will want to apply, manage the admissions process so that we admit mission appropriate students, manage the financial aid so that we maximize the funds to provide the most highly qualified students possible, and ensure that those enrolling stay.
With this in mind, it is important to remember the direct relationship that the recruitment and the retention of students has to the perceived value of your school. During the past several years I have spoken often of the “Value Proposition” (see Value Proposition blog). This proposition asserts that three variables are involved in the independent school enrollment decision for a family. The first variable is the “ability to pay” (AP); the second variable is the “perceived value of your school” (PV); and the third variable is the “perceived value of the alternative school” (AV). Within this equation ( AP × (PV – AV) = Enrollment Probability ) the variable that has the most potential to positively affect enrollment, is the perceived value or your school.
As independent school leaders, you must first understand what it is about your program that your families value. It is common for families to regard high quality academic programs and good teaching; opportunities for their child to participate in activities not possible at larger schools; safety from physical, emotional, and spiritual harm; and often most importantly the intimate size of the school which allows their child to be “known.” However, as Enrollment Managers you should undertake a comprehensive discussion and study within your school community to determine what values make your school special. Then a communication plan should be undertaken to ensure that current and prospective families alike perceive the highest value possible.
For families to make a decision to pay tuition when public education is free, independent schools must represent a positive value differential. We must develop strategies to communicate this value differential. It is when the value differential is sufficiently positive that families will choose to write tuition checks. The sustainability of independent schools is dependent on this effort.
Most of us tend to operate under the assumption that if only families could afford to enroll their children in our schools that they would be “beating the door down” to get in. I believe that this should be the case, however, according to the NAIS Public Opinion Survey over fifty percent of the respondents said that if money and distance between home and school were not barriers, they would choose a public school. This indicates that over fifty percent of the families in our communities feel that the public school is a better choice for educating their children.
Research has shown that many high-income families feel that independent schools provide an unrealistic environment for students. I would argue that this attitude is one the greatest threats to the continued growth and success of independent schools. The notion is pervasive that independent school students are a “bunch of rich kids” that live in an “artificial environment” and will therefore not be prepared for the “real world” upon graduation. This is a belief that we must work at dispelling. In fact, it is just not true.
What is it that makes our independent schools the finest educational institutions in the world? It is not that our families represent a higher socio-economic status, for indeed those students of low SES who attend independent schools are equally prepared. It is not that independent schools are the only schools where excellent teachers work, for indeed there are many outstanding teachers teaching in public schools. It is not that independent schools are located in areas of town where the best and the brightest students reside, for indeed independent schools across the SAIS region most often share a neighborhood with a public school.
The reasons that independent schools are the best schools in the world are the result of a few simple but important characteristics that define an independent school.
1. Independent Schools “OWN” their missions. A government or other entity does not prescribe the mission to them.
2. Independent schools are small learning communities where all children are known, and “falling through the cracks” is not an option.
3. Independent schools provide opportunities for “all” students to be involved in activities designed to educate the whole child. Independent schools recognize the true nature of students; mind, body, and spirit.
4. Independent schools can influence and control student behavior to a higher degree, thus ensuring less behavioral disruptions.
5. Independent schools can hire, develop, and retain excellent teachers while reserving the right to remove ineffective teachers.
For those of you who are committed on a daily basis to maintain the enrollments of your schools, here is your challenge for the future. In order to sustain independent schools for the long term, we must communicate our value proposition even better. We must communicate that which makes us special; that which families cannot live without. We must work with our head of school and the rest of the administrative team to communicate that enrollment is everyone’s responsibility (see Retention: Responsibility of All blog). We must dispel the misconception that independent schools are not “real world” schools for indeed there is no other type of school that introduces a global perspective (see Do Independent Schools Prepare Students for the Real World? blog).
For many independent schools, the time has arrived when full enrollments will no longer happen just from “word of mouth” advertising and reputation. However, that there is no shortage of families with the means to write a tuition check. Our task over the coming years is to persuade those families that an independent school education is the best opportunity possible for their children and that independent schools will provide their children with the best chance for success in a global environment. We must tell the story that independent schools will provide a community in which their child will not fall through the cracks and that independent schools will allow their child to experience a wider variety co-curricular experiences than would be possible anywhere else.
Independent schools are indeed the finest schools in America providing students the most substantial educational experience possible. It is time for all of us to reconsider the Value Proposition; to reconsider the value that each of our schools can provide families. It is time that we recommit to “telling the story” and all who are involved as Enrollment Managers and Admissions professionals are on the front lines in this challenge to ensure that independent schools remain strong.