With the average American student loan debt reaching $29,000 per student per year and a reported 50 percent of college graduates unemployed or underemployed, many, including former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett, have questioned the value of a college education for everyone. In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Education released a College Scorecard that aims to help students and parents compare the cost and value of education at various colleges based on costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, and average amount borrowed for students — all in an effort to help parents make the most informed decision.
As a result, colleges have gotten more sophisticated in their marketing outreach. In the process, most have found that they have needed to shift resources toward more engaging web content to appeal to the ever-changing needs and expectations of college-bound students (as cataloged regularly by higher education consultants Noel-Levitz and others).
Of course, it’s not just higher education institutions that are under scrutiny. Private schools are now facing similar pressures, as many prospective parents question whether the schools are worth the price. Given that K-12 private school enrollment has declined both in terms of total numbers and the percent of enrolled students over the past decade, and that enrollment in free charter schools has risen, it’s clear that private schools need to better differentiate themselves to compete for students. To do this, they need to improve their outreach.
A 2011 NAIS Parent Motivations Survey found that, while evaluating schools, 40 percent of parents rank the school’s website as a top information source, below campus visits (47 percent) and friends, family, and neighbors (45 percent). With schools needing to branch out beyond second-degree connections, a school’s web presence becomes even more important. In fact, the survey’s first recommendation is to “evaluate your school’s promotional materials (website, viewbook, social media, interpersonal exchanges with admission prospects, etc.)” to ensure that the focus is less on the school’s features and more on the attributes that motivate the school’s key audiences to enroll.
Because parents typically only consider four out of an average of six nearby schools, it is vital to attract as many people to campus as possible. Getting parents to the inquiry page of your website is a major goal of a school’s online effort and what better way to do that than to give prospective parents an idea of what it would be like for their child at your institution? Private school communicators need to take into account what parents are coming to your site to find and whether that information is easy to find, compelling, and accurate.
A recent survey found that 45 percent of college-bound juniors and seniors listed videos as among the best ways to learn about a campus location and community. Colleges and universities across the country have turned to making videos like the one noted below, to give prospective students a look into their college in a format that their target audience prefers.
This video from Bates College in Maine provides a look into different perspectives on the Bates experience and gives a sense of the campus as a community and the types of students who excel there. It offers an insight into the college that is much more effective than words alone.
Independent schools can and do use video for different needs, most of which tie directly or indirectly to admissions or advancement. This professionally produced Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire) video gets across the value of one’s donation to the Exeter Fund in a visually interesting and effective way. Although its core message — “Please give us money so that we can continue providing top-quality programs” — is one that every independent school sends to its prospective donors, Exeter’s fresh and personal approach is engaging.
Not every school can put the time and resources into a video of that caliber, but schools can tell their story even with limited resources. For example, Exeter also recorded one student’s take on the school. This type of video provides insight into the value of an independent school education and can be done without any significant expenses.
Schools are also making the investment necessary to attract new students and move them from potential students to applicants. This video from Cate School (California) welcomes its accepted applicants in a format that conveys a feeling of an open and welcoming community full of opportunity. Despite many staged scenes, it delivers a poignant message and comes across as authentic. It evokes feelings of kindness and support while simultaneously making clear that Cate is a school that challenges students to reach their full potential. In less than four minutes, this one video appeals to prospective students who value athletics and a supportive community with strong social bonds. Prospective parents find a school particularly concerned with value, academic strengths, and college placement.
This video from The Academy of the New Church Schools (Pennsylvania) also has a specific message. Weeks after watching it, one remembers its central argument: separating boys and girls from one another for most of their education and then bringing them together later makes girls more confident, boys more focused on schoolwork, and both better members of society. One view is all that is necessary to understand and retain the key message. It is especially important because that message differentiates the school from most other private schools.
As former NAIS President Patrick F. Bassett noted, schools need to compete with other schools on one or more of these categories: brand, price, or uniqueness. Video is a very effective way for schools that do not have a well-known brand name to demonstrate their uniqueness. For example, not every parent would send his or her child or children to a single-sex school, but the video from The Academy of the New Church Schools clearly differentiates itself from other schools in the market and would appeal to parents who have chosen the single-sex option for their child.
Discovering what’s special about your school might entail researching the market to better understand what competitors offer, but it’s also about looking inward at what your school prides itself on and what your students appreciate most about it.
In a time of decreasing enrollment and increasing competition to attract students, schools know they need to distinguish themselves from the competition. Videos should be at the heart of that effort.