By Jeff Henn
Shopping for an independent school education for one’s son or daughter, or multiples thereof, is in many ways like any other purchase in that it’s both rational and emotional. Where it differs from most things in life is that it’s one of the most complex decisions a parent can possibly make, probably more so than buying a home. In the case of 15-year mortgages, a family could conceivably pay longer for preK-12 plus college than they will for their primary residence. In some cases the cost of tuition for that time span can also outstrip the cost of some homes. On the one hand it’s easy to see why a family might opt for public schools when looking at the sheer economic gravity of the situation. However, in my experience, it seems there will always be families of means no matter what the economy is doing, who simply fail to see the value in an independent school education and are there to be won over, IF a school gets the value proposition and messaging dialed in just right.
I have been lucky to work with many fine independent academic institutions along the east coast ranging from K-8, 9-12, and higher ed, and a few themes continue to crop up over and over that are common to all levels, and across geographies.
- In some cases public schools are good enough, or independent schools are not perceived as “better enough” to justify the tuition.
- No big surprise, but the economy still rears its ugly head for many prospective families. They are looking for scholarship opportunities.
- For those that are on the fence between public and independent, they have lofty expectations for what an independent school can do or be for their children. Not only are academic rigor, small class sizes and extra-curricular activities basic expectations of parents, but getting an edge for college and life (even at the lower and middle school levels), and being “networked” with peers for life are recurring themes in our parent research.
- Tuition is a paradoxically fickle issue. Schools that provide the greatest value for the money seem to enjoy greater enrollment numbers than some more expensive competitors, yet there’s still a pervasive belief that if it costs more, then it must be better.
- Even schools that suffer from dwindling enrollment, their current customers are very happy. Keeping a finger on the pulse of current parents is usually not a huge challenge for schools. Getting feeback from the proverbial tire-kickers who are accepted but drop off the radar is the hard part.
- Many school administrations, even at the larger schools, are spread thin on marketing and communications. With the relatively recent ubiquity of social media, resources are spread even thinner. Most, if not all schools need help in this department. Relying on lay committees is not enough.
- Headmasters and Directors of Admissions have plenty of families applying who seek financial aid. Most schools express a similar concern over finding more families of means.
- Parents can grossly over-estimate the tuition of a school. In a recent study we found that several focus group participants estimated a local K-8 school’s tuition at 1.5 to 2 times its current rate.
- There’s a fine line to walk between being perceived as “snooty or snobby” and giving one’s child an edge in life, an edge that they wouldn’t be able to achieve in a public school environment.
- Sometimes being the biggest and best independent school for boys can be a turn-off for families. Parents have expressed things to me like, “I feel like my son would be a little fish in a big pond.”
Administrators are always glad they start their new marketing campaign or re-branding with marketing research. Whether doing a survey, in-depth interviews, a round of focus groups, or some combination of two to three methodologies, proceeding with market intelligence is always better than shooting from the hip.
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Jeff Henn is one of two in-house, full-service marketing research consultants at Baltimore Research. Whether he’s running focus groups and in-depth-interviews, or administering field surveys, providing insights for clients’ marketing strategies yields the greatest fulfillment. When asked what he does, he often responds with – “I help organizations figure out what their customers want, need and are willing to buy.”
Photo Credit, © Robwilson39 | Dreamstime.com – Focus Group Photo