Worth Every Penny

By Net Assets posted 12-11-2014 04:23 PM

Worth Every Penny

Enrollment & Financial Aid

A Net Assets classic: As new educational alternatives cause even affluent families to balk at rising tuitions, independent schools are enhancing programming and tearing pages from the business marketing playbook.

Article by Tom Price

This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 Net Assets

Tim Arling’s 2003 graduation was viewed around the Maret School campus as the end of an era. He was the last of three siblings to leave the K–12 independent school in Northwest Washington, D.C. All were “lifers,” accumulating a total of 39 years in attendance.

At the time, many assumed another generation of Arling children would follow Tim and his siblings to Maret. But rapidly rising tuition—from $19,850 Tim’s senior year to $34,790 for today’s upper-school students—makes that seem unlikely.

Tim’s sister and her husband have settled in a Northern Virginia suburb so their four children can attend the highly regarded public schools there. His brother’s family may be about to leave the Washington area. And Tim worries that he and his wife won’t be able to afford Maret—or may decide it’s not worth the price—even though he credits the school with “playing a large part in my being able to do what I wanted to do (become a physician) and carve out an identity for myself.”

Tim’s story is far from unique. According to NAIS's Annual Statistics for the Independent School Industry, median 12th-grade tuition rose from $16,000 in 2003–04 to $24,485 for 2013–14, about twice the rate of inflation.

Despite such price hikes, independent school applications continued to increase by just under 2 percent annually the last three years, after declining during the depths of the recent recession, the NBOA survey found.

Nevertheless, many independent school leaders are grappling with concerns that their schools could become too expensive, and that even families who could afford the tuition might decide it’s not worth it.

The concern is intensified by families’ ability to choose from a growing number of educational alternatives in public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, home schooling and online courses. Some parents are enriching their children’s public schooling by enrolling them in cultural and sports clubs and camps, and by hiring tutors, music teachers and college counselors—all for much less than they would pay in private school tuition. And the best public schools tend to be in neighborhoods where private school families live, according to Jed Kolko, chief economist for the Trulia online real estate marketplace.

"It’s like what they say about investing in the stock market: Past performance is not a guarantee of future success."

The rise in applications “doesn’t make me feel any better,” says Terry Armstrong, chief financial and innovation officer at St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School, also in Washington, D.C. “It’s like what they say about investing in the stock market: Past performance is not a guarantee of future success.”

The Business Marketing Playbook

The “innovation” part of Armstrong’s title marks a trend, according to Grant Lichtman, an education consultant whose just-published book, #Edjourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, is based on more than 600 interviews during visits to 70 public and private schools in 2012. He found that schools are responding to high-tuition concerns by scrutinizing costs and enhancing their marketing efforts. But they also are evaluating and changing programs to make sure they’re offering products that parents will want to buy. As part of that improvement process, many schools are charging one individual or team with “encouraging, defining, designing, developing, assessing, or implementing innovative practices,” Lichtman wrote. The leader frequently is called the innovation or imagination officer.

Recognizing a potential cost problem, Maret in 2009 implemented policies designed to push its tuition increases toward the rate of inflation, says Head of School Marjo Talbot. Tuition hikes have dropped every year since, from 6 percent in 2009 to 2.9 percent for this school year.

Maret also created the Case Institute for Curricular Innovation and Excellence in 2008. Funded in part by AOL founder Steve Case and his wife Jean, who were Maret parents at the time, the institute pays teachers to collaborate in summer workshops that are designed to “come up with ways to enhance our program,” Talbot says.

Claude Anderson, dean of enrollment at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts, and a marketing consultant, advises schools to study businesses’ marketing playbooks. Students, parents and faculty can be a school’s most effective marketers, he says. But professional marketers can help craft the right message, especially for faculty.

Educators need to change their mindset from “school centric” to “customer centric,” Anderson says. A key is developing two-way communication with families of potential students, and learning what they’re looking for before pitching the school’s strengths.

He points to Sewickley Academy near Pittsburgh, which offers free ebooks and other useful information through its website. Topics include “27 Questions to Help You Evaluate a School for Your Child,” “19 Book Recommendations for Elementary School Children” and, for parents of older children, the “College Campus Visit Checklist.”

While the publications don’t explicitly promote Sewickley, Anderson says, they can spur parents to think about the academy and provide contact information that the school can use to open a conversation with the families.

Distinctive Qualities

In Simsbury, Connecticut, The Ethel Walker School seeks parental feedback throughout the year, according to Thom Greenlaw, chief operating officer and assistant head of school for strategic initiatives. The school conducts parent focus groups, invites parents to breakfasts with the head of school and holds Skype conferences for boarding students’ parents who may live far from campus.

Calling parent satisfaction “the best marketing for independent schools,” Greenlaw says he wants Ethel Walker parents “to be stark raving fans.”

Anderson says it’s especially important to understand families that pay full tuition, because they underwrite a school’s financial sustainability. Study how companies market luxury goods, he advised, because their customers and full-tuition parents often are the same people.

High-priced independent schools should embrace the idea that they are luxury brands, adds Ace Ellis, chief financial officer at Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. “What’s important is for schools to be able to stand behind their price,” he says. “It’s an expensive product, and that’s something we should not be ashamed of.”

"Maybe the private school is better than the public school, but is it 25,000 percent better?"

It’s not enough to be good, however, Anderson notes. A school must prove that it has distinctive qualities that set it apart from others, he explains, just as Fed Ex is associated with speedy delivery, Volvo with safety and Starbucks with a social experience that goes beyond a simple cup of coffee.

“Maybe the private school is better than the public school, but is it 25,000 percent better?” he asks, alluding to the fact that public schools are free.

Northfield Mount Hermon’s distinction is its “College Model Academic Program,” which resembles what students will encounter after high school, Anderson says. Students take fewer but longer classes each term.

Ethel Walker School recently adopted a new curriculum after a leader spent a year interviewing experts in education and business about what skills a young woman will need to succeed in college and beyond, Greenlaw said. The result includes multidisciplinary courses that cross traditional academic silos. The school also “listened to the scientists who said adolescents need more sleep,” and now starts classes about an hour later, he says.

Maret, founded by three French immigrant sisters, points to global programs that have sent students to France, India, Spain, Nicaragua, Taiwan and Ethiopia. It also coordinates a 15-school consortium whose teachers offer advanced online courses that broaden each school’s curriculum.

“Schools that truly establish and document a strongly differentiated value proposition have a better chance of getting their seats filled,” Lichtman says. And he describes scores in his book. Among them:

  • St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, has created the Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning to apply the findings of neurodevelopmental research at Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Stanford Universities and the University of Virginia. The research informs St. Andrew’s faculty as well as teachers from 16 other schools that participate.
  • Collapsing silos, the high school science and English departments at Berkeley Carroll School jointly offer a science writing course. Students at the independent school in Brooklyn also can undertake a multi-year science research project that culminates in the public presentation of a published paper.
  • Hawken School and Poughkeepsie Day School are among many that are redesigning calendars to offer longer classes. The schedule at Hawken, near Cleveland, includes “intensive blocks” which devote three weeks to a single class. At Poughkeepsie, 80 miles north of Manhattan, every eighth day contains lengthier classes, some of which occur off campus.

Lichtman found that innovation is not limited to private schools, however. For instance, Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy is a partnership between the city’s school district and the Franklin Institute that is designed to provide a rich education in science, technology, engineering and math. Some courses are conducted at the institute. Students also serve internships there and at Philadelphia businesses, universities and cultural and civic organizations. Ninety percent of the academy’s graduates, many of whom are financially disadvantaged, attend four-year colleges.

Another public high school example: Students at Franklin Community High School near Indianapolis design their own independent study projects. Before they begin, they must demonstrate how the project complies with Common Core standards and determine how many credits in which subjects the project will earn.

Such innovations fulfill what Ellis termed the “more advanced needs” on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. People must fulfill basic needs—such as food, water and sleep—before they move on to higher levels, such as creativity, achievement, self-esteem and respect from others, theorized the psychologist in the 1940s.

“The further up we go on the hierarchy of needs, the more people will be willing to pay,” Ellis says. “Schools that connect at higher levels probably will be around for a long time because they’re really tapping into something that is of great value to us.”

Tom Price is a Washington freelance journalist whose focus includes education and business. Previously he was a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau and chief politics writer for the Cox newspapers in Dayton, Ohio. His daughter graduated from an independent school.

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