The admission office has always been the bellwether of health for an independent school and is the first to see the subtle—and not so subtle—changes playing out in our communities. The admission office, however, as we have seen in our research reports (The State of the Independent School Admission Industry, 2013 and 2016), has historically not been endowed with the deference that its revenue-generating capacity would suggest. Traditionally—and particularly prior to the financial crisis of 2008—school leaders viewed admission as little more than a gatekeeper function to be staffed by friendly extroverts who could shepherd interested new students and their families through the process of enrolling.
But as we move further into a period characterized by external instability, independent school leaders must embrace a new mindset. Now more than ever, it is time to expect and build increased professionalism in the admission office and to use all strategic enrollment management levers available to create long-term success. Making this distinct shift in the way we view the work of admission is crucial to managing what often feels like unyielding forces pushing on our ability to enroll full classes of students.
There are many such forces at work in today’s educational landscape that will affect the health of tomorrow’s independent schools. Maintaining a close watch on the trends and issues that affect healthy enrollment is essential if we are to face the future with confidence.
A rapidly shifting student-aged cohort is contributing to one of the largest challenges facing the U.S. independent school market. Growth in the U.S. population is slowing overall, and the aging of the baby boomer generation is quickly defining the social and political landscape of our nation. A Congressional Research Service report released in 2011 projected that people 65 and older (13 percent of the population at the time) would make up 20.2 percent of the U.S. population by 2050. The birth rate in the United States has been relatively flat since 1970; in 2009, the largest two-year birth decrease in more than 30 years was posted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (After the market decline, it seems many decided to forego having children as they worked to rebuild finances; additionally, an increase in educated professional women in the workforce has given rise to a growing trend of affluent women having children later in life.)
The racial composition of the United States is changing in significant ways. The white, non-Hispanic segment of the country’s population has declined from 69.1 percent in 2000 to 63.7 percent in 2010; by 2050, just 46.3 percent of the population will be white, redefining what it means to be a minority in this country. In contrast, the country’s Hispanic population is booming—from 2000 to 2010, the percentage of Hispanics in the United States grew by 43 percent. This market segment will comprise 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050 (up from 16 percent in 2011), according to a 2011 U.S. News & World Report article. These trends play out across the country in exciting and challenging ways for independent schools; indeed, in several urban centers, including Miami and Los Angeles, student-aged populations are already supporting a majority of Hispanic children.
The Wealth Gap Widens
If demographics weren’t a large enough challenge to overcome, independent schools are beginning to experience signs of the massive shift in our country’s wealth. The bifurcation of wealth has led to increased financial aid applications as middle-income families continue to be squeezed by market forces and independent school tuition costs. In 2009, the top 20 percent of U.S. households earned 50.3 percent of all household income, according to the Census Bureau. That figure is trending upward (49.7 percent in 2000 and 46.6 percent in 1990). During the same period, all other quintile shares of household income have dropped. The bottom 20 percent of all U.S. households in 2009 earned 3.3 percent of all wealth. Independent schools can appreciate the barbell effect that is being created and the cultural challenges that follow from the declining number of middle-class students on campus.
What does all this mean for independent schools? The Enrollment Management Association believes that the admission practices of the past will not sustain the independent schools of the future. Indeed, experienced admission and enrollment leaders have seen dramatic shape-shifting among the profiles of families interested in our education as these trends bring us new kinds of customers. With fewer children being born, increases in school tuition outpacing the ability of many to pay tuition, and an increasingly diverse population, it is clear that those charged with managing a school’s enrollment must become strategic in their work to find, attract, admit, enroll, and retain mission-appropriate students.
In the short term, many independent school admission leaders have looked outside the United States for full-pay students from other countries during the last decade. While international students and their families have allowed independent schools to create “global schoolhouses,” we’re seeing a potential shift in this new market, connected to the U.S. political climate and tightening immigration laws. Even considering the rapid growth of international students in independent schools in the last decade, private school enrollment continues to decline. According to the 2016–2017 NAIS Trendbook, 39 percent of NAIS schools experienced a decline in enrollment for the 2016–2017 academic year.
Data from the Enrollment Management Association’s 2016 State of the Independent School Admission Industry report reveal that 30 percent of responding schools did not meet their enrollment goals at the start of the last school year. Yet, even as many independent schools are struggling, the K–12 education marketplace is booming. Charter schools are in rapid growth mode, fueled in part by activist parents and national policy that seeks to improve and customize public education. Homeschooling is also growing as families plug their children into education that can be accessed from home while also connecting them to other students worldwide. New models of education are also rapidly developing; in our 2015 report, Sizing up the Competition, we detailed four emerging models in the marketplace that have become formidable competitors to independent schools. These new models offer compelling value propositions to the market, with programs that are academically rigorous, or focused on deeper, project-based learning or personalized (customized) learning. These new schools are focused on serving millennial parents who are frustrated with traditional models of pedagogy and seek a more customized educational experience for their children at a lower cost.
Finding a Unique Value Proposition
When parents are looking for private education, where do independent schools fit into their consideration? What is our community’s unique offering to the marketplace? Overwhelmingly, independent school admission directors have touted independent schools’ “development of the whole child.” Indeed, 33 percent of those who answered our 2016 industry survey told us that their key messages centered on “whole child education.” While these words are essentially code within the independent school community for a strong commitment to character-based learning, it’s clear that the whole-child message isn’t resonating deeply with today’s young parents. MaryLeigh Bliss, chief content officer for YPulse, a youth marketing and millennial research firm, offered these insights at the Enrollment Management Association’s Annual Conference last September:
- Millennial parents expect innovation.
- 70% of millennials say advertise-ments usually bore them.
- 75% would like it if brands surprised them.
- 92% of millennial parents agree: “It is important that my children know they are special/unique.”
- 6 in 10 millennial parents would prefer their child stand out rather than fit in.
In sum, Bliss reports, “Major life milestones are being impacted by the desire for things that feel one-of-a-kind.” When considering schools’ whole-child messaging, it’s possible that millennial families aren’t understanding all aspects of their programmatic offerings and are worried that their children will be “homogenized” rather than embraced for their unique gifts in our schools.
To win in today’s marketplace, independent schools must begin to build compelling messages about the advantages offered by our wider community of schools. Admission and enrollment leaders in 2017 need to build schoolwide buy-in so that all members of a school community develop a deeper orientation toward customer service.
From Admission to Enrollment Management
We can all agree that when great schools enroll great students, everything becomes possible. Time and again, testimonials about student transformations are part of the rich narrative that independent schools have told families as they explain the value of their education. Yet, without strong evidence of those transformations, independent schools are falling behind other K–12 options.
It is no longer enough to recruit, market, and admit students in a normalized cycle that repeats itself year after year. In an internet-dominated world with growing competition, schools must rebuild their expectations about their work to ensure enrollment success. The new admission office must focus on all facets of a school’s enrollment and become committed to trend watching, data-driven analysis, and ongoing strategy development and implementation to reach new markets of families and keep them.
Recent Enrollment Management Association studies bear out disturbing trends inside the independent school admission office. While tuition revenue in most independent schools equals 80 percent (or more) of a school’s operating budget, most admission officers find themselves in the lower-middle management ranks of independent school power hierarchies. Most admission directors are part of their school’s administrative team and report to the head of school, but these same admission directors report that they are not regularly in touch with the board (63 percent). Just 21 percent of admission directors are in charge of financial aid: a key enrollment management tool. Even fewer (17 percent) play a major role in setting tuition at their schools. These findings are sobering, given that the key individual focused on ensuring enrollment success and operating revenue does not have a seat at most independent school leadership tables. Further, when reviewing bands of admission director pay, it is clear that those enrollment directors who are paid at the top of the scale are most likely to be part of positive enrollment success. In this work, it seems clear that independent schools are “getting what they pay for” when it comes to clear directives and goals for enrollment.
Higher education can teach us a great deal about using an enrollment management model to drive increased success and building a case for change in the independent school community. As colleges and universities have learned, for strategic enrollment management to function effectively it must encompass all aspects of the student journey, including market research and strategy; educational program and school brand; recruitment and selection of new students; tuition and financial aid strategy; school culture and community; retention of current students; student educational outcomes; and alumni research.
If independent schools are to survive—or more importantly, thrive—well into the future, admission offices must push beyond their conventional focus (acquisition of new students) to become more strategically focused on the marketplace and all the drivers that contribute to steady, long-term enrollment success. This shift to move admission into a more strategic leadership role within independent schools—so that those tasked with ensuring a majority of their institution’s operating revenue will join their counterparts in school finance and advancement—will allow schools to more fully realize their missions.