Jun 7, 2022

The Irony of Independence in Schools and Colleges

From a categorical standpoint, one might expect independent private schools and colleges to drive the most substantial change in the education sector. An independent school or college is defined by their ability to make their own choices, chose their own mission, and cultivate their own, self-perpetuating board members. In other words, these are organizations that have few limitations, other than those they impose on themselves.

Why is it, then, that these same organizations struggle from the same historic business model challenges? They often wonder why they struggle with enrollment or finance, yet fail to recognize that they follow a high cost, low volume business model, favor selective admissions, and install other barriers to enrollment and retention. You would think that, given their independence, they would build out their ecosystems to reach new students, audiences, and price points, increasing their footprint, influence, and diversity in the process.

Educators and economists alike have been predicting a reset of education for years. They have warned that the occurrence of one or two catastrophic events could reshape the entire education landscape. They have argued that tuition was too high, expense structures were too bloated, and private schools and colleges were not centered on the needs of the market, just the needs of a minority. And, then came the pandemic.

My theory is that independent schools and colleges have been trying to solve the wrong strategic questions for quite some time. Chief among them include the following, which I shared back in January 2021 in a post called The Reckoning Begins:

  • How do we find more full pay families? The right question here is how do we scale our price and expenses to meet the needs of the market?

  • How do we remain selective in our admissions process? The right question here is how do we make our programs more accessible to those who need us?

  • How do we market ourselves better and be better known in our community? The right question here is how do we better connect and make meaningful and relevant relationships in our own backyard?

  • How do we acquire more diversity in our schools? People were meant to be understood, not acquired. Diversity through acquisition is among our most significant moral sins as an industry. The right question is how do we gain cultural competency and fluency in order to attract audiences that can see themselves in our community?

We are at another pivot point, an inflection in the education industry. As we emerge and pass into a post-pandemic landscape, our industry has a golden opportunity to challenge some of the inherent failed assumptions of our business model. And, in order to solve these issues, it will need to lean into independence as a primary asset for creating change.

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