By Abe Novick
Competition among independent schools for next year’s student enrollment has already begun. Open House season has been in full force and planning is underway to showcase and offer up each school’s unique assets within, what’s become an ever-growing and fiercely competitive market.
Indeed, jockeying for a school’s positioning in the consumer’s mind, not unlike “Back-to-School” shelf-space for parents’ attention (and wallets) and students’ interest, is an apt metaphor for the difficult, never-ending role that marketing plays in relation to education.
Within a short time-span, three disruptive forces have converged to exert pressure on schools.
Enrollment: Growth has been down. According to The U.S. Department of Education, private school enrollments have decreased over the past 15 years, from 12 percent to 10 percent with projections into 2021 of it dwindling to 9 percent. Add to that lengthy trend, The Great Recession, and we have an acute toll taken on independent schools, forcing them to offer more financial aid, while seeing many families opt for public school as an alternative, and in some cases to close altogether.
Costs: While enrollment took a dive, rising costs never go on vacation. For example, an independent school’s campus and facilities create the “first impression” prospective students and their families experience. Likewise, over the last several years, school safety has become a top concern among families, requiring schools to invest in new, more advanced security systems. Moreover, the need to attract high quality staff and visionary leaders is key to a school’s success, but often comes with a higher price tag.
Tech Revolution: With infants toying on iPads and learning to count and say their ABCs, schools these days have had to adapt to this latest techno-generation by offering advanced devices from SMART Boards to iPads, as a way to keep them interested. Online assignments and interaction between students, teachers and parents via the web is now the norm.
While traditional Open Houses have been a staple of marketing to prospective families, and are still an important piece of the pupil population puzzle, schools need to place more of an emphasis on marketing the same way world-class brand marketers attract those Back-To-School shoppers.
First, start with your consumer— the parent. When’s the last time you’ve conducted research to gain an understanding of your current parent population? What about those families who were accepted, but declined?
Next, it’s about positioning. Most independent schools with a sports program will understand that just as in lacrosse, soccer or football, if you’re not in the “ready” position, you’ll miss the ball. It’s the same with marketing. How do you fit into the independent school ecosystem? What makes you stand out as a star?
Many school administrators who rely solely on Open Houses often say, “If we can only get them in the door, they’ll be sold.” They also need to realize that doing their homework – from research, to brand positioning to year-round engagement is the most effective way to a gold star.
Abe Novick, a strategic partner with Kalix Communications, heads up his own consultancy, AbeBuzz.com.