Enrollment, independent, challenges, school, market, strategic, weaknesses, branding, identity, students, strengths, competitive


Despite the slight uptick in enrollment over the past year, many independent schools continue to face enrollment challenges. Too often these challenges are met with quick fixes that provide temporary comfort, but are ineffective and often detrimental in helping the school attain long-term financial sustainability. Some schools have significantly “discounted to the market,” providing steep tuition reductions in order to meet enrollment targets. Others have cut back on programs or frozen teacher salaries. One school even offered its head a bonus for increasing enrollment. Despite their good intentions, these responses divert attention from creating a foundation for long-term financial health. It is painful to watch a school focus on the wrong solutions, ultimately compromising its ability to achieve the financial sustainability it needs.

Painful as it is to watch these schools struggle, it is understandable because most of them cannot afford to hire marketing consultants. And frankly, many marketing consultants offer only canned, broad-brush solutions that fail to account for the particular market in which the school operates.

So how can a school think more strategically and work more effectively on its enrollment challenges? By following the simple, yet effective words often attributed to the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu: “Know yourself, know your enemy, and know the terrain.”

Let’s look at the application of each these elements to independent school marketing.

Know Yourself

Thinking strategically about your enrollment challenges first and foremost begins with taking a dispassionate, objective look at the quality of your service. How good is your school? Really? To what degree are you living your mission? Why do students leave your school? What value are you giving parents and students? Is there buy-in from all constituencies for what the school is and what it aspires to be? What assets can be leveraged to strengthen your position in the marketplace? What glaring weaknesses need to be fixed?

If your school has fundamental weaknesses, there is no amount of “messaging” or “branding” that will overcome these deficiencies. In addition, if you do not understand your assets, you run the risk of unwittingly foregoing opportunities to jumpstart positive change. One school in a major metropolitan area used a highly successful music school under its umbrella of operation, even though it was only loosely connected. A new head immediately saw the potential opportunity to use this auxiliary program to attract stronger students and shed its image as a third-tier school. Working closely with the music school director, the head tied the day school to the music school, creating innovative and distinctive programs that attracted stronger students who wanted to also pursue music seriously. In essence, the school created value by discovering an asset and leveraging it to achieve a marketing goal.

Know the Enemy

If you are not a competitive person, do not head a school struggling with enrollment. Being “smart” competitive means understanding the competition—its strengths and weaknesses and what position it owns in the marketplace. Herein lies Step One in developing a more complete understanding of the landscape of reality. That fuller knowledge is essential in identifying opportunities—an important step in designing and executing a plan that carves out a winnable position in the market. Every independent school marketing challenge is different, but in general, you want to avoid replicating what other schools tout as their distinctive differences. In order to do this, you must know these schools and recognize what makes them compelling choices for certain families. For example, in one highly competitive market with several high-powered schools in which students competed against each other, one school emphasized the personal touch. It strengthened its advisor program, created more opportunities for parent-teacher interaction, and established individualized course counseling. It looked at almost every aspect of its program and message and asked itself, “Without compromising our standards, how can we create a more personal experience for our students and families?” Within several years, it had drastically reduced attrition and doubled the number of applications to over 500 per year. And it did so without the use of a marketing consultant.

Know the Terrain

Knowing the enemy is Step One in carving out a sustainable market niche, but it is not enough. Not by a long shot. To create a successful marketing strategy, you need to study and understand demographics- income projections, population by age, growth areas, etc. More importantly, you need to develop a theory about the perceptions of your school in relation to the competition. You have to make some reasonable guesses about the values of the community so that you can determine what drivers and barriers to behavior exist. Are there table stakes that will limit your school’s capacity to attract students- sports offerings, AP courses, STEM programs? It is unreasonable to expect schools facing enrollment challenges to pay for brand studies; they are simply too expensive. But these schools can gather information through demographic studies and interviews in order to create a reasonable theory about the nature of the market. One head in his first year at a struggling school interviewed a number of private placement consultants who helped families identify appropriate schools for their children. He pushed the consultants to be honest, to share the unvarnished truth about the school and how it was perceived. The interviews prompted him to initiate some significant changes in the school’s program that eventually led to a stronger position in the market place. Too many schools focus solely on surveying their parents in an effort to uncover and market the positive attributes of the school. It’s not enough. They need to discover the outside perception of the school to fully understand the barriers that prevent inquiries and applications.

“Know yourself, know the enemy, know the terrain.” There are no pat answers in this maxim, just a template for better understanding the real marketing challenges a school faces and ultimately helping it take action to make a real difference.