What Billboards Can Teach Us

I recently drove a stretch of well-traveled highway between Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was heading to one of our educational clients and drove that 70 mile, well-worn stretch of Interstate 40. During my drive, I paid increasingly close attention to the number and frequency of billboards promoting college and universities across the region. Honestly, there must have been at least 20 billboards that I saw along my drive, but I am sure there were many that I missed.

As I drove, I paid attention to the the key message, or what each college or university was promoting. And, along the way, I learned that nearly every college was saying, in a nutshell, the same thing. My version of what I saw along the way:

  • Key Message #1 : “We’re affordable”.

  • Key Message #2: “We’re easy to access, delivering programs on your terms, schedule, etc.”

  • Key Message #3: “We’re accelerated; you can start early and finish early."

Billboards can teach us a lot if we are open to understanding the big picture of what they are saying. In my drive, while each of the colleges and universities were different, these billboards were reflecting the same true needs of the consumer and marketplace. Our next generation of consumer wants 1) affordability, 2) accessibility, and 3) accelerated paths to their future. My simple content analysis of billboards revealed industry sector trends.

Symptoms of Our Changing Landscape

I am preoccupled about the changing realities of the education market. There is no questions we have arrived at a pivot point, with a tremendous shift occurring in so many areas of our metrics. Just think about it.

  • Most private schools are experiencing declines in demand, especially at the lower school entry points.

  • North American domestic boarding is in a state of arrest, with an entire association initiative tied to resurrecting it to some pre-decline level.

  • Increasing financial aid is being used at nearly all schools, with much of it to retain existing students, not to generate new demand or advance diversity, inclusivity, and equity initiatives.

  • High levels of investment have been made in strategic enrollment management across the industry, meaning that more schools than ever before have their act together.

  • Enhanced marketing communications with nearly all schools, meaning that nearly every school has a solid website and greater clarity in their identity.

Each of these items is a symptom of a larger issue. Markets are contracting and schools are having to work harder to sustain themselves. While none of these issues represents a game-changing element for the future, they together contribute to understanding the larger issue.

In the future, education will look different. What will it look like and what will happen to our industry? We will focus on that in our next entry.

Marymount High School selects ISA

Marymount High School in Los Angeles, California has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates to provide research and consulting services to the board of trustees.

Marymount is an independent, Catholic all-girls school that fosters confidence, joy, leadership, and a sense of greater purpose in its students. Marymount students come from over 86 Catholic, Independent, and Public Schools covering 65 zip codes in the greater LA area. Representing 18 different faiths and religions, our young women are diverse, vibrant and thriving.

Established in 1923 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), Marymount, Los Angeles was founded at the request of the Most Reverend John Cantwell, the first Archbishop of Los Angeles. Over the last 95 years, Marymount has continued to evolve scholastically, programmatically, financially and philanthropically as it has continued to bear the hallmarks of excellence and visionary planning. Though the decades have changed, Marymount's mission remains constant.

We are excited to welcome Marymount into the ISA client community.

University Child Development School selects ISA

University Child Development School in Seattle, Washington has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates to provide research and consulting services to the board of trustees.

UCDS was founded as a lab school on the campus of the University of Washington in 1911. Since the inception of this school, teachers have assumed the role of educational researchers as they designed, implemented and evaluated programs. Today, as a professional practice school, UCDS is engaged in ongoing educational reform.

UCDS has designed a culture of inquiry essential to meaningful learning. The school cultivates reflective, collaborative, skillful thinkers who ignite positive change in their communities, engaging diverse perspectives in an ongoing effort to shape and share its innovative education model.

We are pleased to be able to lend our expertise and support to such a forward-thinking school.

Trinity Episcopal School selects ISA

Trinity Episcopal School in Charlotte, North Carolina has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates for strategic planning work, commencing in January 2020 and continuing into the fall.

Located in the First Ward Garden District of Charlotte’s Center City, it is the only K-8 urban independent school in Charlotte. Over 50% of Trinity students live within five miles of campus. Founded in 2000, the school was designed to nurture a racially, economically and religiously diverse community of learners that strives for academic excellence & spiritual development.

Trinity Episcopal encourages students to be socially-conscious and civically-engaged ambassadors of grace, honor and respect in the world.

We are so pleased to welcome Trinity Episcopal into our client community.

Pilgrim School selects ISA... again

Pilgrim School in Los Angeles, CA, has engaged Ian Symmonds & Associates for strategic planning services. Our work will commence in April 2020 and continue through the end of the year. ISA is very familiar with Pilgrim School, having worked with the school on previous research and strategy projects, and we are pleased to welcoming them back into the ISA client family.

Pilgrim School is a co-ed college preparatory school committed to enriching the mind, nurturing the spirit, and enabling thoughtful moral choices for the 21st century. We are very much looking forward to continuing our relationship with such a high-caliber institution.

Portland Community College Selects ISA

Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates for strategic planning services. Our work commences in August 2019 and will continue for the next 14 months. We are excited to welcome Portland Community College to the Ian Symmonds client community. More importantly, we are delighted to contribute to writing the next chapter of history to a college system that is creating the next generation of education to serve a city we have called home for 20 years.

PCC will be the single largest educational institution served in the fifteen year history of our firm. As the largest post-secondary institution in Oregon, PCC serves nearly 73,000 full-time and part-time students. PCC offers high-quality education and opportunities for our students, which in turn contributes to the vibrancy of Portland's economic community. PCC aims to educate a skilled workforce, prepare students to successfully transfer to four-year schools, enrich the community through lifelong learning, build a greener workforce and shrink our carbon footprint, and be a sound financial steward of public dollars.

Crossroads School Selects ISA…Again

Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates for research and consulting services. Our work will commence in August and continue throughout the academic year.

We are excited to continue our work with this extraordinary educational leader in Southern California. Crossroads School provides a unique K-12 program built on a progressive, developmental model of education. Crossroads was founded in 1971 by Paul Cummins, along with a small group of teachers and parents, who wanted to provide a new approach to learning in a nonprofit, coeducational college preparatory day school.

ISA is no stranger to Crossroads. We completed their strategic plan last year and have also conducted market research and strategic enrollment management consulting services over the years. We are delighted to continue our long-term relationship with this fine school.

Industry Change Is Everywhere

Industry change is everywhere. No matter where we look, it is nearly impossible to find an industry that has not seen disruption. Think about it. Transportation is moving towards micro-transportation and ride sharing to solve urban congestion. Housing is moving toward smaller, more affordable housing to solve soaring homelessness and housing costs, as well as a generational thirst for accumulating less stuff. Retail has moved online for ease of access, wider choices, less inventory, and thus a more scalable model. New models of delivering core products and services to changing customer needs are the norm. One can only surmise that the same thinking and change will proliferate education. It’s only a matter of time.

Academy Of the Sacred Heart Selects ISA…Again


Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates for research and consulting services. A long time client of ISA, we completed the strategic plan for the school three years ago, as well as conducted strategic enrollment management work. We are delighted to welcome the school back into our client community.

Academy of the Sacred Heart is an all-girls, independent, Roman Catholic high school in New Orleans, Louisiana. Founded in 1867, it is located in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans and is part of the Network of Sacred Heart Schools, an international organization with more than 150+ school worldwide. Within the Sacred Heart Network family, it is often referred to as "The Rosary." The school's student body ranges from ages 1 to 12th grade. Sacred Heart is a member of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest and athletically, it competes in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.

Our work with Academy of the Sacred Heart will commence this month and continue throughout the summer. We look forward to partnering with the school again.