Jun 21, 2011

A Defining Moment – Making the Case for Independent Schools

In the past several years, the enrollment and marketing environment at independent schools across the country has become increasingly competitive. A lagging economy with an uncertain future looming only made the recruitment and retention challenge even more difficult. The struggle to find academically qualified students who have the capability to afford an independent education has become fierce, with many independent schools increasing the sophistication level of their marketing efforts. Promotional strategies once reserved for the private, primarily tuition-driven liberal arts college have made their way into the mainstream of the growing competitiveness of independent school marketing programs. Portal sites, direct mail, social media, and advertising campaigns – once reserved for the well-funded school – are now commonplace strategies at many independent schools across the country.

Clearly the growth of mainstream promotional efforts within the independent school market is a result of a more competitive marketplace. However, I think there is more here than meets the eye. We work with many independent schools – and small colleges – throughout the country on a consulting basis, helping them sort out their enrollment challenges and assisting them in developing strategic marketing plans. Throughout our work, we often see some general marketing themes arise in the independent school world that are no different than the challenges private colleges and universities deal with each and every day. Those themes start with becoming an advocate for private education and crafting a clear and unique institutional identity.

We pose two important questions to independent schools. First, has your independent school adopted a set of advocacy messages about the unique attributes and value of an independent education? Second, has your independent school developed a clear and focused institutional identity that sets your program apart from the competition? Let’s take a deeper look at those two questions to help sort out these two marketing challenges.

Becoming an Advocate

Making the case for a private education is often the first step. At the college level, private institutions have been learning for years how important it is to discuss the benefits of a private college experience before they promote their own institution. Most private higher education research shows that among the biggest competitors for students are public universities, who often may have lower published tuition and fees. Adopting a set of key points about the benefits of a private college education has helped many colleges open the conversation about the benefits of their own college.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) long ago launched a nationwide advocacy campaign. The Independent School Advocacy Initiative is a national campaign to tell the unique value and characteristics about an independent education. This initiative is aimed at helping independent schools tell their unique story within the context of the overall purpose of an independent school. As more families with limited exposure to private schools consider an independent education, the need to educate them about the value of an independent school experience increases. We continue to encourage many independent schools to become an independent school advocate before having in-depth conversations with families about their own institutions.

The Need to Define and Clarify

Whether it is at the independent school level or the within the college and university market, the need to define and clarify the benefits of your particular institution have never been more important. As consumers become more sophisticated at assessing the quality and value of an educational experience, the need to develop a clarified sense of value and identity for private schools increases. Independent schools across the country – particularly those in competitive urban markets – are learning just how important it is to create a solid sense of institutional identity. Specifically, they are learning to craft an identity that is unique and differentiated among their primary competitors. And often they find that identity hidden deep within their core values.

What is unique about your independent school? What programs or services set your institution apart or make it “distinctive” and “distinguished”? What is it that your independent school does particularly well? What things does your institution believe in deeply, as evidenced by its values and the way in which it lives them out? We encourage independent schools to really consider these questions as they define and clarify their own institutional identity.

Creating a clear institutional identity can often be part of a more formalized process, such as through strategic planning or a strategic marketing effort. These processes often help independent schools sort out their identity and create unique messages about themselves in a strategic, transparent process, allowing for stakeholder participation and investment.

A Defining Moment for Independent Schools

In an increasingly competitive environment for independent schools, it has never been more important to play the role of advocate and to create an effective institutional identity. As the competition for students increases, the need to clarify what your institution is all about grows. Learning to be an advocate for independent education and articulating a compelling institutional identity may help your independent school create enrollment opportunity in this competitive environment.