Delaying the Decision

Economic trends and forces have always had an important impact on consumer choice. Historically, though, the education industry has been viewed as somewhat recession-proof, specifically at the higher education level. When the economy goes South, more people go back to school to gain important skills, retooling for a new career or the next big move. When compared to other industries, this has made the education sector seemingly more stable, and often even robust, during difficult economic times.

Over the course of the past several years, particularly since the economic downturn beginning in 2008, we are witnessing an interesting trend. It would appear that many private school or college consumers are opting to delay the decision to enroll. Call it a new trend, or an increase in an existing trend, but consumer behavior in some areas and regions appear to be delaying the early stages of enrollment. What does this look like?

At the higher education level, a prospective freshman might decide to enroll in the first two years of higher education at a community college, saving residence fees and boarding costs, then transfer to small private college for the junior year when the major classes kick in. Simultaneously, they are able to work part or full time, pay relatively low tuition, and get the most value for their hard-earned or saved dollar. And, they still receive the degree and the transcript from the respected, small private college.

At the independent school level, families ultimately oriented to sending their child to a respected day school in their local community may continue to enroll them in the local elementary school or even home schooling options. This saves tens of thousands of dollars in tuition in the lower or even middle school grades, where the curriculum is not transcripted for college and the benefits are less tangible. This allows the family to save money, prepare for the transition, and make certain that their careers and socioeconomic outlook are more optimistic. They ultimately enroll in the upper school program at the local day school, gaining all the college placement and scholarship benefits from this transcripted prep experience, minus the tens of thousands of dollars of lower or middle school.

As educators, we know the value of the residential college experience for a first year student. We believe in the power of early childhood development. But, we may have a tough bargain to strike with families whose economic certainty is clouded and when funds are tight. I'm not sure it is a new trend, or an escalation of an ongoing consumer behavior, My guess is that is the latter. Regardless, as educational delivery becomes more diverse and ubiquitous, this is not a trend that I believe is going away all too soon.