Engaging Online Learners for Greater Financial Sustainability

Expanding online curriculum can also promote on-campus engagement opportunities.

Apr 14, 2022

Over the course of the pandemic, schools have discovered news ways to sustain their missions and academic programs in a remote environment. Now, emerging innovations in technology are laying the groundwork for an even more enriching experience. School leaders from Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Cheshire Academy, North Shore Country Day and St. Ignatius High School explained in a 2022 NBOA Annual Meeting Deep Dive session how a thoughtful approach to online learning can keep tuition affordable and faculty engaged. In the session titled “Business Leadership and the Future of Independent Schools: Exploring the ‘What If?’,” the presenters outlined the benefits, challenges and projected outcomes of online learning programs for independent schools.

The model is potentially simple: Identify what’s working best in your school’s academic programming and build on it for a larger, digital-first audience. For example, say your school has a respected faculty member who holds expertise in calculus but says she is burnt out teaching the same Algebra I course each year and is unsatisfied with her current salary. To retain and reengage this employee, your school might offer to replace the algebra classes with an online-only calculus module, through which she can leverage her specialty and increase her income, with more flexibility around how and when she teaches. In return, the school attracts more students, retains satisfied faculty members, and may even generate a new revenue stream by training teachers on how to provide best-in-class online instruction.

In fact, this model already exists. “There are already independent schools doing this and doing it well,” said Matt Piechota, CFO at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. He pointed to Global Online Academy, One Schoolhouse and Stanford Online High School as a few of the examples of organizations offering courses and programs for student and adult learners online. “We need to follow and improve upon the example that these schools are setting for us.”

Independent schools should think about what untapped markets may be attracted to their schools’ offerings in an online environment. Potential groups include:

  • Student athletes whose training schedule requires them to seek additional classes outside traditional school hours.
  • Gifted students seeking additional academic challenges.
  • Students with social anxiety or mental health issues who want to go at their own pace in an environment that is comfortable to them.
  • Homeschool parents who aren’t skilled enough or comfortable enough teaching a certain subject.
  • Parents seeking a traditional independent school education for their child but are unable to afford the full tuition.

To demonstrate the financial scalability of this model, the presenters ran a 10-year budget projection. For years one, five and 10, they estimate a price of $2,000 per course. “We would have room to increase compensation, invest in the necessary technology to maintain the program and still add to the bottom line,” Piechota concluded. If a student took five courses a year for $10,000 total, for example, that would still be well below what a typical year of tuition at an independent school would cost – a draw for prospective parents who otherwise would not have considered an independent school education.

Jane Segale, CFO at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, followed up this point by addressing potential challenges that come with this model:

  • Resistance to online learning: When schools switched to emergency remote instruction in 2020, parents and teachers expressed concern about the quality of online education and its ability to bridge a social-emotional experience. For this model to work, schools will need to grow institutional support and training for faculty members, and communicate the benefits of online learning to parents, the board and alumni.
  • Transferability of credits to colleges: “If colleges don’t view online courses and the diplomas that come from them as the same as traditional diploma in education, we’re going to have a hard time selling the program [to parents].”
  • Technology needs: From cameras to microphones to virtual reality technology, an engaging online experience will require an investment in the appropriate tools. The hope is that teachers will be more well-versed in the range of tools used in online learning, and students will demand more interesting multimedia learning experiences.
  • Sense of community: Going forward, schools may need campus “mini-experiences” to create a sense of community and provide opportunities for parents and students to get to know each other outside the virtual classroom.


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