Independent Schools Can Learn from Higher Education's Example

Forging School Strategies Blog | January 28, 2015

It’s a common refrain that independent schools are facing unprecedented challenges. Over the past few years, inquiries, applications and enrollment have all declined. Demographic changes are forcing schools to address both socio-economic and racial diversity challenges head on. Parents are questioning why they should pay high tuition with the explosion of new alternatives like charter schools.

These challenges, however, are nothing new to another branch of education: the obstacles independent schools are facing now are remarkably similar to those that confronted higher education a little over a half-decade ago. Mere seconds after the ink was dry from covering the subprime mortgage crisis, media publications starting predicting that higher education would be the next bubble. The published criticisms then sound strikingly similar to what independent schools are facing today: tuition is too high, increasing competition will capture market share (with online and for-profit education playing the role of charter schools) and the “country club” atmosphere of elite institutions is impractical and will render them obsolete in the face of changing demographics in the US.

Fast-forward seven years, and we are still waiting on this higher education bubble to burst as the media continues to parrot these talking points. As it turns out, you can’t just quote national tuition averages to claim college is too expensive, or state that the liberal arts is dead, without examining the issue by looking at individual institutions. Enrollment at 4-year public and private institutions continues to increase, and the online and for-profit competition that was supposed to “disrupt” higher education hasn’t made a significant dent.

What does this mean for independent schools? Stated simply, it means that they must make adjustments similar to those made by colleges and universities. Independent schools must confront the core issues they are facing, ask tough questions about the value they provide, and be honest about the strengths that need cultivating and weaknesses that need to be addressed. Furthermore, both pricing and positioning strategies must be market-tested and research-based. In the past decade, a number of colleges have in fact suffered declines, but many of these declines were the result of institutions that did not confront their core issues and put in the work to differentiate themselves from the competition. This can ultimately lead to hasty, and possibly harmful, measures to stop the bleeding.

While circumstances are not entirely similar, examples from higher education can help guide independent schools through their current challenges. Many colleges and universities addressed the challenges posed by demographic changes and perceptions of elitism by taking more thoughtful, intelligent approaches to pricing, positioning and strategic planning. Hobart and William Smith Colleges is a good example of a liberal arts school that did not stay complacent, and instead worked to strengthen their position and increase enrollment by elevating their unique experiential components in their marketing communications to potential students. Independent schools have the same opportunity to commit to similar approaches and distinguish themselves in a crowded market, such as Kent School implementing a comprehensively researched and integrated positioning campaign that boosted their status in the extremely competitive New England boarding school market. As with colleges, schools that think and act strategically will likely flourish despite a challenging demographic and economic environment.