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Projections: What a Difference a Decade Makes

By Jeffrey Shields posted 10-24-2019 08:58 AM


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The unspoken rules of handling financial aid have changed. A focus on pricing, discounting and NTR will help us secure true financial viability.

From the November/December 2019 issue of Net Assets magazine

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

When I first arrived at NBOA in 2010, I brought a strong perspective about higher-education business, finance and operations, but I had much to learn about independent PK-12 education. I recall a business officer pulling me aside and sharing that “all you need to do to get business officers talking is get them in the same room and tell them to discuss financial aid. They will have uninterrupted discussion for four hours.” Although shared in jest, the sentiment was true, and it remains true today. That, however, is pretty much the only thing that has remained the same.

Back then, I learned a few unspoken rules by which business officers abided with little exception, even while schools were reeling from effects of the recession. Merit-based aid was essentially verboten. Financial aid dollars were to be allocated strictly to mission-fit students that demonstrated financial need. The overarching goal of aid programs was to build a student body that reflected the broadest range of diversity, including socioeconomic diversity. Schools trusted that financial aid allocations among peer schools were similar enough, regardless of the software or formula used to calculate them. Families that came to play “let’s make a deal” were quickly escorted to the door. At least that was what was being said aloud, and I believed it.

I also believe what I hear too frequently today. Merit aid, i.e., non-need-based aid, is frequently used as a tool to attract the best and brightest mission-fit students. Competition is fierce for “the next Michelle Obama” or “the next John McCain.” Families are also school shopping with a clear understanding that they are in the driver’s seat. Some have no issue pitting one school against another in terms of financial aid packages offered and picking the school with the highest bid. Driven by enrollment targets and school finances, business officers have little choice but to engage in these conversations. Perhaps more disturbing are families with demonstrated ability to pay full tuition that still look for a deal. What is a business officer or enrollment manager to do?

When our conversations are focused exclusively on cost, we lose because we compete with free educational options every day.

First, as with many premium-priced services, we must clearly articulate our value — not just the head of school and enrollment manager, but the entire community: administrators, faculty, students and families. Everyone should know how the school is different from not just other independent schools but all other PK-12 alternatives in the marketplace: well-funded public schools, charter schools and homeschooling. When our conversations are focused exclusively on cost, we lose because we compete with free educational options every day.

Second, the cost of our education must be aligned with its perceived value. Many schools are doing the hard work of examining expenses, tuition revenue and enrollment projections, and coming up with creative and effective strategies. Some are rightsizing their enrollments and operations. Some are indexing tuition. A select few are “resetting” their tuition to a lower, more appealing number, essentially offering their financial aid or discount at the outset. It is imperative that heads of school, business officers, enrollment managers and trustees dispassionately examine their business model and enrollment targets to develop a sustainable and realistic strategy for their school’s long-term financial health.

Finally, we must grapple with discounting. What is our financial aid philosophy, and how do we support it? What level of net tuition do we need to operate a financially sustainable program for our students and families? And what are our discounting guardrails, and how will we protect and maintain them to be fair and equitable opportunities for all students and families? 

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.

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