Among the many pressures felt by school leadership and trustees, those related to enrollment feasibility and pricing strategy are omnipresent and confusing. Over the last ten-plus years, schools have often come to our firm asking for research and consulting related to market demand, enrollment capacity, and tuition setting, but never with the frequency that we have seen over the last year.
Why the increase?
After the economic crisis of 2008, many schools went into “emergency mode”, offering financial band-aids for current families and creating new financial assistance policies on the fly to attract and support new students. With the best interests of the institution and families in mind, of course, schools attempted to protect enrollment numbers while securing employment for faculty and staff. It was difficult to put much forethought into how long the increased need would last, and it was hard to know how long it would take for the economy to recuperate. Now that the economy is (seemingly) on surer footing, schools are cleaning up from the downturn, and are revisiting conversations about strategy, budgeting, capacity, and possible shrinkage or expansion. As schools recover, questions about pricing and market demand are taking the front seat in a new way.
It is no secret that schools are living a “new normal” when it comes to enrollment strategy and pricing models. We are long past the days when a standard percentage tuition increase covered all of the needs of a school, when attrition remained steady year over year, and full classes with waitlists were the norm. Schools all over the country, including areas of historical high demand like New York, San Francisco, DC, and Baltimore are seeing inconsistent inquiry numbers, less secure yield, and ping-ponging attrition rates. In order to plan effectively and responsibly, enrollment feasibility work is becoming part of the new normal, rather than the exception to the rule.
It can be overwhelming to manage the research required to make sound decisions, but it is imperative that schools do this deep thinking and planning to ensure the long term sustainability of their institutions.