Find Your Identity: A Strategic Response to Enrollment Challenges

The Problem
A major culprit in the enrollment woes so many independent schools are facing today is the absence of clarity surrounding their identities. To be sure, there are other drivers conspiring to depress enrollment: demographics, charter school competition, and unaffordable tuitions to name a few, and clearly, enrollment challenges may be caused by poor execution in one or more domains (EMA Graphics). But too often the focus on execution distracts the school from the more fundamental problem of an unclear identity in the market. In particular, in addressing enrollment challenges, schools avoid the painful self-examination that is a prerequisite for meaningful change. More often they focus on hiring a new head and charging her with increasing enrollment…right now. Lacking the knowledge of strategic marketing and feeling intense pressure to get results, the new head typically looks for quick fixes: a new program, more financial aid, merit scholarships, differentiators that are not compelling, alternative revenue, and hiring a new director of marketing and communications. These quick fixes are no match for the failure to make clear what the school stands for. 

A strategic response to enrollment pressures requires a customer-centric perspective. What does the school want to be known for? What brand associations will drive prospective parents to the school? Where are there open spaces in the market? Where can the school compete? Many independent schools need to stop seeing their enrollment challenge as a problem to be fixed but rather an opportunity to connect to a new market. And only the head of school can lead this effort because it touches every facet of the school operation. 

The Process
How can a Head think more strategically about identity and enrollment? Where does she start? Here’s one approach: 

1. Have your leadership team assess the school in comparison to its competitors. Where is the school now in the eyes of the market? Use the following prompts: level of academic challenge and excellence, character development and leadership, individual attention, knowing and valuing the student, arts, athletics, the degree to which the school meets the student’s specific needs, personal growth, and other important drivers in your market.

2. Now do a thought exercise. Imagine ten of your parents individually in conversation with ten parents not associated with your school. “Tell me about your daughter’s experience at __________. I know she just graduated; what was it like for her?” Write out the response you want the majority of your ten parents to give, your ideal response. Don’t use educational jargon; use parent language. Include what the parent was looking for when sending the daughter to your school and how those expectations have been met from the parent’s perspective. What were the surprises? Focus on the overall experience. In this hypothetical response, what are the three major takeaways you want that prospective parent to have? Again, write the response as if you were a parent, not an educator.

3. Now deconstruct the response. What’s implied in the response; most importantly, what does the response say about who will gravitate to your aspirational school? What values does the parent have? What are his aspirations for the child? What other key elements are a part of that parent’s profile? 

4. Now stress test the response. Does it align with your school’s mission? Is there an open space in the market for the brand associations suggested in the response? Can the school provide proof (results and demonstrations) to reinforce the student experience detailed in the response? Remember, you are trying to create a coherent narrative. Does the school have assets that can be leveraged to help it achieve the desired brand? Can the school survive in the short-term while focusing on capturing this market space in the long-term? Can the school execute a plan that will capture the desired position in the market: attracting and retaining talented faculty, incentivizing faculty behaviors that will lead to the desired student experience, and establishing structures that clearly communicate by action, not just words, the desired brand?

5. If there are major barriers to achieving the top three brand associations in your hypothetical parent’s response, revise the response. Don’t sugarcoat or be unrealistic. Focus on the profile of your audience and the nature of your competition as you make revisions. For instance, if your school cannot be the most academic in the traditional sense, maybe academic excellence is a table stakes in which the school needs to demonstrate a certain level of excellence without being “king of the hill,” in order for its differentiators to kick in and drive customer behavior. If excellence is more personal and individualized, how will your school prove to parents that this core component is real and not just a lazy inference parents might draw from small class sizes and the presence of an advisor system? As you refine the parent response, continue to think of the school’s assets, its capabilities, and its systems to achieve the desired experience. These components may influence your hypothetical parent response and the subsequent vision that arises from it. 

6. Once you have refined the parent response, get your trustees and faculty on the same page. Turn the response into a vision. You don’t need everybody in agreement initially, but you need enough support to get significant investment in order to achieve the desired student experience. You want to start a virtuous cycle, which means you will need some early wins. You might also frame the presentation by providing alternate scenarios and doing a cost-benefit analysis for each one. By doing so, trustees see that the choice is ultimately a bet, not a sure thing. But the bet is rooted in deep insights about the school and the market; it’s not just a fantasy of the head. If the powers-that-be want to adhere to a particular student experience, one that involves more risk and the potential sacrifice of scale, and are willing to live with the downside of that choice, so be it.  

7. Now you are ready to do some strategic planning. What behaviors do you need in order to produce the student experience that will, in turn, lead to parents positively describing those experiences using similar language? What results are needed to reinforce the narrative emerging from the student experience? What does your school need to do in order to achieve these new behaviors and results? As you answer these questions, think about change management: the pace of change, the extent of change, personnel, and the structures needed for change to happen.

Many independent schools are facing a slow existential crisis. The longer they delay in facing this crisis, the fewer options they will have. Although new heads are often unprepared to face these kinds of marketing challenges, it is incumbent upon them to learn to think strategically and holistically and to set aside time to reflect and connect the dots. For heads whose schools have unclear identities, your willingness to dive into the unknown, forego tightly-held assumptions, and learn are critical prerequisites. Don’t be linear; let the insights come to you from multiple sources. And remember, your job is to discover insights relevant to your school, not copy the playbook from your previous school.  

The above framework is designed to provide a roadmap for discovering key insights that will lead to effective strategy. There may not be a perfect answer to your marketing challenges, but there is a best answer. Use a systematic approach to find it.

Happy hunting!