From the November/December 2021 Net Assets magazine
A few summers ago, the NBOA staff read “Competing Against Luck” by Clayton Christensen, which lays out the management guru’s “jobs to be done” framework. During our annual staff retreat, we discussed how organizations, like the one we serve, are most successful when they prioritize meeting the needs of their customers or members, even above the products that the organization offers. Schools can also benefit from considering what “jobs” families need schools to do for them and how best to meet their needs.
You may be familiar with NAIS’ research that has used the jobs-to-be-done framework to identify why families “hire” schools, or in other words, enroll their students there. Key “jobs,” parents say, have boiled down to helping children overcome obstacles in learning, providing opportunities for children to grow academically, enhancing every child’s social and emotional development, and helping children gain admission to top colleges and universities.
The COVID-19 pandemic surfaced another key job that quickly elbowed its way to the top of the list: educating children well while keeping them physically safe. This job drove many new families to enrolling their children in independent schools in the fall of 2020, creating an unprecedented surge of interest and enrollment in some regions. With the nearly overwhelming pandemic-driven challenges in public education, families suddenly understood the essential ways in which independent schools not only offer value but also how they deliver on that value proposition.
Reports from the public school sector — based on federal data circulated by the National Center for Education Statistics — note that as many as 1.5 million students left public schools last year. A troubling number dropped out completely and may or may not return. But many children also transitioned to independent schools. According to a recent survey by the Enrollment Management Association (EMA), the independent school community as a whole saw an increase in applications and enrollment for the 2020-21 school year, with the majority of new families coming from public schools.
Last year, I had the pleasure of speaking with Laurel Baker Tew, assistant head of school for enrollment at Viewpoint School in Southern California, who is a thought leader on independent school enrollment management and had then just begun her term on the NBOA Board of Directors. During our conversation, Tew was one of the first to articulate the trend of new families seeking independent school education just days before school was to open — virtually, in many cases — in the fall of 2020. These families, she noted at the time, were seeking to replace the public schools’ hit-or-miss distance-learning programs with either high-quality distance learning or, where possible, classroom learning. And they were coming to independent schools after financial-aid dollars were already allocated.
“Our practice is to apply discipline and rigor regarding the allocation of financial-aid dollars and have made a commitment that its primary purpose is to increase the socioeconomic diversity of the school. When these dollars are gone, they are gone. The good news is that the families that enrolled late last year are still here, and they understand and accept our process. They are not asking for financial assistance.”
—Laurel Baker Tew,Viewpoint School
I contacted Tew again recently, wanting to know where these families were one year later. Did they stay? And, if they stayed, did they seek financial aid?
“At Viewpoint, thankfully, we’ve retained those families without providing additional aid,” she told me. “Our practice is to apply discipline and rigor regarding the allocation of financial-aid dollars and have made a commitment that its primary purpose is to increase the socioeconomic diversity of the school. When these dollars are gone, they are gone. The good news is that the families that enrolled late last year are still here, and they understand and accept our process. They are not asking for financial assistance.”
Viewpoint School also allocated additional COVID-19 relief funds to help previously existing families get through the height of the pandemic. Regarding these funds, Tew had mixed, but generally good news to share as well. “Keep in mind, we communicated in writing that the relief fund provided a one-time award only,” she said. “Of all those receiving emergency pandemic-related awards, about half did not require an award of financial aid beyond the one-year stop-gap. The other half did apply a second time for financial assistance. Those who were successful in continuing to demonstrate need were awarded aid. Those who couldn’t demonstrate continued need were not. We wish we could do more, but we’re glad to see that families generally understand the nature of these funds and accepted the outcome of our financial-aid process.”
At NBOA, we are not aware of any national survey of independent schools addressing the question of exactly how many of the families that enrolled in independent schools for the first time in 2020-21 re-enrolled in 2021-22. We also don’t know how many of them, if any, were seeking financial aid in their second year. But general surveys and anecdotal reports indicate that independent schools have largely held their enrollment numbers this year without having to dig deeper into financial aid.
In a flash survey at the start of this school year, for instance, EMA learned that 90% of its member schools are at or above their target enrollment for the fall. At the same time, 82% of schools have met or exceeded their opening day net tuition revenue, with only 4% of schools at 5% or below their target revenue.
In this issue, we also note that retention rates appear to be holding steady for the 2021-22 school year — including the retention of new families. For instance, at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, in Princeton, New Jersey, the retention rate for both new families and the influx of mid-year transfers from public schools is at 93%. At McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland, the overall retention rate is 97%.
“Parents were looking for stability,” he told us recently, “and independent schools have been able to provide that for them in interesting and innovative ways.”
—Peter Baron,Enrollment Management Association
In a year still roiling with uncertainty — as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches out at least through this fall — it’s impressive to see the way independent schools have risen to the occasion and have taken on those key jobs to serve families well. It’s also gratifying to learn that this effort has translated into enrollment success. In fact, independent schools have been working harder this year than ever to both strengthen and communicate their value — one that is both constant and constantly evolving. It’s also worth highlighting the various ways in which interest in independent schools increased during the pandemic — with parents highlighting historic truths, such as the low student-teacher ratio and academic excellence, along with more contemporary issues such as technological capabilities, personalized and flexible programming, deepened attention to student social-emotional development, and the ability to offer quality virtual learning in which no student gets lost in the mix. Peter Baron, chief member relations officer at EMA, highlights another factor: “Parents were looking for stability,” he told us recently, “and independent schools have been able to provide that for them in interesting and innovative ways.”
Another factor that may play in our schools’ favor is the potential to enroll more international students in the coming year. We lost so many of them during the pandemic and circumstances, especially travel restrictions, have kept them away again this year. However, EMA also reports that all of its virtual international student fairs that took place last March were sold out.
In short, it looks like independent schools, collectively, are going to weather the pandemic as well as, if not better than, could be expected. Our value is clearer now than ever, and families have been able and willing to meet our tuition requirements.
However, while independent schools can take solace in the healthy financial start to the 2021-22 school year, it’s also clear that the pandemic effect is still at play. This academic year, in other words, may simply represent a continuation of the previous one in which families turned to independent schools to keep their children safe and engaged during a public health crisis that has yet to let up. We will no doubt learn more about the value of our programs a year from now, assuming we break COVID-19’s grip and public schools can reopen in some semblance of normality.
The question about what lies ahead will be driven by a number of factors, key among them is what Mark Mitchell, NAIS’s vice president and a member of the NBOA Board of Directors, describes as the tension between the ability of families to pay independent school tuitions and their willingness to pay. To this end, it’s important that we dedicate time this year to better understand our families and their needs, and continue to strive for ways to strengthen our value proposition. At the same time, we need to work collaboratively to sharpen our focus on retention for the coming years — including deepening our understanding of the challenges related to access and affordability and how they align with our missions. In other words, we’d be wise to prioritize enrollment management.
Of course, a key step in this work is for us to avoid the trappings of staying in an emergency mode, intensely embracing the short-term, problem-solving mindset. We’ve done that out of necessity for over a year now. But it’s time to start transferring at least some of our focus. While our ability to be adaptive and flexible in the short term has been impressive, it’s important to start carving out time again for long-term thinking and planning — especially when it comes to the essential and complex business of admissions.
Pandemic Tested Financial Aid (Nov/Dec 2021)
Projections: Tuition Discounting in Unprecedented Times (Jul/Aug 2021)
Mission & Motivation: Both Sides Now (Nov-Dec 2020)
Roller Coaster Enrollment Trends During COVID-19 (Aug 2020)
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