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The Grinnell Effect

A small college’s strategic pivot illuminates a brighter path forward for struggling K-12 schools.

Nov 17, 2016

From the November/December 2016 Net Assets Magazine.

Picture this: After a board retreat, your school’s leadership realizes that its current admissions and financial aid practices are unsustainable financially. Together you hunker down and develop a strategic plan, drawing on the school’s core strengths and reaffirming its mission, which is to provide a top-notch, well-rounded education to the brightest students regardless of socioeconomic background.

The plan goes into effect, and the quality of the student body improves  —  test scores and GPAs rise. Diversity also increases. More prospective students recognize the school’s unusual name, more and better students apply to the school, and selectivity goes up. At the same time, tuition revenue is healthy. As the school’s value proposition increases, growing numbers of students from higher-income families also apply, and the school gradually decreases the amount of aid it distributes.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Yet this actually happened at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in central Iowa. Earlier this year, I attended the National Association of College and University Business Officers’ annual meeting, where I heard Kate Walker, Grinnell’s vice president for finance, present on the impressive results of the college’s strategic pivot.

While Grinnell’s challenges are familiar to many independent schools, its mission and strengths are somewhat different from K–12 institutions. Since its founding, Grinnell has been committed to conducting need-blind admissions and meeting 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need, something that fewer than 50 colleges nationwide do today. Most distinctive is its $1.8 billion endowment, a resource few independent K–12 schools have, which allows the college to offer generous financial aid packages and scholarships.

Despite these differences, we can learn from Grinnell’s example. The college’s remarkable changes followed a careful examination of its unique mission, priorities and resources. It also examined what distinguishes it from competitors and its long-term goals. Independent schools can similarly reflect and develop forward-looking plans that will help them thrive in their particular contexts. Your school, too, can develop and highlight its particular value proposition to attract the best-fitting students, whose enrollment helps the bottom line.

You’ll find other inspiring examples of change in this issue of Net Assets. Focused squarely on the particular challenges and opportunities of the K–12 admissions funnel, it covers everything from word-of-mouth-marketing to price elasticity to financial aid to working with assertive parents. I hope these pieces help you rethink or reaffirm some of your own admissions practices, which I know are now well underway for the 2017–18 school year.

Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.




years is the target ceiling for a school plant's financial "age."

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