Increased competition within the schooling marketplace, combined with the shifting priorities of a new generation of parents, has rendered the fortunes of independent and parochial schools more uncertain than ever before. As we have noted here previously, as of just two years ago, private schools enrolled more than 10% fewer students than in 2000. And within that overall enrollment decline is the even more ominous statistic that enrollment in grades K-8 is down nearly 17%.
Over lunch, a colleague recently passed on a comment from a 40-year veteran of evangelical schooling on the West Coast: “Being a ‘Christian’ school just isn’t enough anymore. Parents want more than a brand, and they want everything to be the highest quality.”
But what do parents mean by “highest quality,” if they don’t intrinsically value what schools have been accustomed to offering? And, is the conclusion that a faith-based brand no longer attracts them actually true?
To get some light on the subject, the heads of schools with membership in the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability (CESA) were surveyed earlier this year. A diverse group of faith-based schools, they have one thing in common: an active commitment to a form of excellence based on the CESA Standards, which are designed to push otherwise quality schools to a higher level of exceptionality.
Enrollment and Retention
Responding to the question of overall enrollment performance over the past five years, 70% of the schools reported that they had grown, with more than half experiencing more than 10% increases. Of the schools that had either not grown or declined, none had lost more than 10% of their overall student population.
Pretty impressive, given the bleak outlook that many private schools have been facing. But the follow up questions paint a slightly gloomier picture.
Despite the net enrollment growth, 64% of the schools reported average attrition rates (the number of students eligible to re-enroll who opted not to) during the same period of 6% or higher. Within that category, exactly half of the schools (32%) are losing more than 10% of their eligible re-enrollees each year.
Now that still leaves 36% of schools that are retaining 95% or more of their students each year, but it seems striking that high quality, well established schools, not just your run-of-the-mill private schools, are losing that many students annually.
In a previous post on attrition, we modeled out its troubling cost. Given that household incomes and affordability are ubiquitous concerns, attrition of only 10% can suck away more than 10% of each new student’s tuition, driving up the cost to operate, and the price, for everyone. Even modest attrition creates a vicious cycle that converts admissions activity from revenue enhancement to revenue replacement. And you face the additional penalty that a good chunk of revenue from new students never makes it into the classroom to support faculty and programs.
And where do they go when they leave? Only 11% of the schools said that their non-re-enrolling kids went mostly to other private schools. 53% of the families opted for public school, while 36% of the respondents said that families were split between public and private options. Correspondingly, 60% of the heads designated public schools as their number one competition, while only 5% say that public schools are their weakest competitors.
So, it would seem that the overriding issue is the choice between “free” and “not-free,” the inevitable function of an “It’s the economy, stupid!” reality. But is it really?
Providing a candid assessment of how their schools compare qualitatively with the competition, 55% of the heads think their schools are “much better” than local public schools. 40% appraised their schools as only “slightly better” than their regular public counterparts. (By the way, when comparing themselves to public charters, 75% said “much better” and only 19% said “slightly better.”)
Though the cost factor is hardly irrelevant, remember that 70% of these schools have grown in the past five years, some by leaps and bounds. That must mean that in their individual markets, there are plenty of people who are willing to pay for school. In fact, with attrition rates as they are, there seem to be more people who are open to tuition than not.
This statistical slice likely points more to a problem with the value proposition to parents once they have enrolled, rather than an external marketing failure. The consumers we are having the most difficult time convincing that private school is worth it are the ones we already have. We already convinced them to fork over tuition once, but now that they’ve done it, a significant percentage are drawing the conclusion that public schools, compared to which 95% of the surveyed heads claim to be better, are actually a greater value!
So, what do these CESA schools say has the greatest effect on retaining students? When asked to name “one innovation” that has had the greatest impact on retention, more than half described either a quantitative or qualitative increase in staffing, or both.
- “An admissions director who works on retention by contacting each family personally each year.”
- “Strong and honest assessments of staff and faculty, …releasing under performers, and hiring well to fill those positions.”
- “Personal phone calls from teachers and administrators to families who are on the fence.”
- “An accessible leadership team loaded with professionals who value partnership.”
- “Building community through strong home/school communication, customer service training for employees, and taking measurable steps to care for families in need.”
These sample thoughts describe a variety of strategies, but they voice a singular goal: Put more and better skilled professionals in touch with parents, and make them feel served.
Realizing that this is a tiny sample and that reading too much into a simple, unscientific survey can easily take one in zany directions, much of the information from the survey does correspond to a common vexation among private school leaders, especially regarding what parents really care about. Also, the fact that each of the surveyed schools either had or is putting into place an intentional retention strategy highlights a growing realization of the crisis.
And notice, too, that what these schools are doing is a highly retail approach to building relationships with parents. At some point, as valuable as they may be, instantly available online information or detached inbound marketing or aggressive social media campaigns fail to make the personal connection that it seems parents increasingly require.
All of which leads back to the earlier thought: marketing to our families on the basis of a mere brand or reputation, no matter how polished and cherished, will make validating their choice to pay higher and higher tuition a tougher and tougher job.
A former head of schools in Virginia and Texas, Chuck Evans has been serving independent schools as a teacher, leader, and consultant for more than twenty-five years. As a consultant for Better Schools, he has worked with dozens of schools since 2006, leading strategic and financial planning processes and major program expansion projects. He has worked as a lobbyist in the Texas State Legislature, a certified mediator, and is a founding board member of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability (CESA).