Admission Office folks at independent schools across the country are shifting into high gear. The blur that is November through April is upon us. As we are about to step into the whirlwind of open houses, campus tours, student interviews, and parent phone calls, let’s take a moment to take stock of where we are and what the new admission season might have in store.
Here at Cannon School in North Carolina, we’ve spent the past couple months or so reviewing the forces at play that are giving us all heartburn each time we look closely at our Lower School enrollment numbers.
We all want to jump to the conclusion that dips in population have reduced the numbers of elementary school-aged children. And while that might have been true in some areas around the country for a bit (birthrates stalled in the year or two following the great recession) a close look at the NAIS demographic center data actually show projected growth in the numbers of school-aged children through 2022.
So, if the pool of prospective students is still sufficiently deep, why are so many of us feeling the pinch when we compare our lower school inquiries and applications numbers to three or five years ago?
There are lots of theories out there. The two possibilities that we’re studying relate to price and competition.
First, middle and upper middle-class families are letting us know that they are being squeezed by the rising costs of healthcare, childcare, and other cost of living items (think groceries, home maintenance, taxes, etc.). As a result, many are balking at Lower School tuition numbers at independent schools.
We hear prospective parents saying things like “…our local public elementary school is safe – and the kids can walk to school” or “we’ll look at the independent school for middle school, but our local public school is good enough for now.” For these parents, schools that are safe enough and good enough – and are also free – are hard to ignore.
Add that mentality to the reality that there are now more school options than ever in the history of our country – and it’s not too hard to see why our lower schools are shrinking. New charter schools are opening every year – many with long wait lists and plans to expand to full blown K-12 programs. Public schools are establishing magnet programs that funnel lots of talented students into language immersion or STEM-focused schools with good faculty and great test scores
And while it has not taken hold here in North Carolina (yet!), we are hearing from colleagues around the country that programs like AltSchool and other online school options are attracting families with their high-tech, innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
So, as we start the process of building relationships with a new set of prospective parents and students, we are aware of the challenges we face. More than ever – and more clearly than ever – we need to articulate the benefits of an independent school education to families. That famous question we hear in our sleep – “What is our value proposition?” – is as relevant as ever.
We know we are better than good enough. And we know our schools are worth the investment. But with market forces playing against us – we need to be more prepared than ever to show prospective parents why the independent school option is the best option for their family.
Got ideas on how you and your admission team will do this in the weeks and months ahead? Share them!
William D. Diskin
Director of Admission
and Financial Aid