In December of 2019 at The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) annual conference in Boston, Derek Krein – Dean of Professional and Programmatic Growth at Tabor Academy – and Peter Baron – Chief Member Relations Officer at The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) – got to chatting in the concourse between sessions, sharing what they heard at various presentations. After an extended pause, they named unspeakable in unison, “It’s just not sustainable.” And so, the seed was sown for their presentation this year: Is It Time To Rethink The Independent School Business Model?
Part of Krein’s charge in his role at Tabor is staying attuned to industry shifts and opportunities while trying to “scan the future” of independent boarding schools. This, in turn, helps to inform how he guides faculty growth and program development to ensure Tabor remains a relevant leader in boarding school education.
At EMA, Baron is in perpetual conversation with independent school leaders and entrepreneurs from elementary, secondary, and higher education. His work drives much of the research, professional development, and forecasting initiatives at EMA in service of “what’s next” for our industry.
Over the past year Krein and Baron set out to synthesize the latest trends from independent schools and higher education. Some of the key take-aways for independent boarding schools are synthesized nicely by Ozan Varol, author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: a shared language between “scientists and engineers” – the dreamers and stewards of resources – is essential for evolution and innovation across any industry. “If you stick with the familiar, you won’t find the unexpected. Those who get ahead in this century will dance with the great unknown and find danger, rather than comfort, in the status quo.”
The legacy of the independent boarding school business model is one that has long prioritized the known, stable, and predictable. Systems and programs at these schools remain largely undisturbed, resulting in a substantial variance between the actual cost to educate students and the revenue lost in as a result of lower published tuition and additional financial aid grants; millions of dollars each year compounded over decades. With such slim and diminishing margins, it’s no wonder the COVID pandemic created so much stress upon schools in our sector. Many traditional educational models are now misaligned to future trends and how people learn best.
Several years ago, Tabor Academy embraced the notion of research-informed practice and experimentation as a Pioneer Partner School with the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL). The CTTL gathers and translates the Mind Brain Education (MBE) research so that scientific data helps to inform instructional choices pursued in service of the Tabor Experience across all areas of school life. This action-research evolution dovetailed seamlessly with the Jobs To Be Done framework that Tabor adopted from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). NAIS surveyed Tabor constituents and gathered data from the demand-side of the market – the prospective families who chose Tabor – opening wide the opportunity to steer toward far more deliberate innovation initiatives. Acknowledging the aspects of Tabor that the market deems valuable helps to guide decision-making and business model forecasting in far more accurate ways than relying on legacy systems and programs. Having
increased our adaptability, agility, and ultimately our readiness in this regard for several years, COVID presented turbulence, not utter chaos and demise.
Elaborating on the consumers, Baron and Krein went on to examine the shifting demographic realities, including population migration, wealth distribution, and Millennial characteristics. Millennials are already in the independent school pipeline, though not quite yet at the boarding school threshold; but they are coming. This group has been more burdened by financial hardship that previous generations, and as a result they are discerning consumers looking for significant value in return for their investment. EMA research reveals they are, as a group, increasingly less influenced by a school’s reputation from days gone by than they are interested in where a school is going in order to meet the learning needs of their child(ren). Brand name is secondary to brand commitment to a set of values, and Millennials are far more attuned to word-of-mouth marketing, user-generated content, and social selling with greater fidelity than their Gen X predecessors.
For this next wave of boarding school patrons, a whole-child educational experience rooted in the real world is emerging as a non-negotiable for nearly all independent school purchases. The signature program can’t come at the expense of a whole child integration, given many of those programs can be obtained (or outsourced) at lower price points in the open market (for instance: club athletic teams, independent college counselors, community theater, and so on). If a school isn’t meeting a Millennial family’s needs, they are much quicker to invest in another school that will; schools need to win over Millennials every day, every year, especially as education costs outpace income growth. So, how do we drive families toward the promise of boarding schools without putting self-imposed obstacles in the way?
The presentation concluded by naming the challenge before our boarding school industry is to make the case to our prospective families, our alumni base, and our faculty that our respective institution’s commitment to continual renewal and relevance is deep and durable. Alternative education options present a very real existential threat to our current model and related programming. As consumer demands evolve in conjunction with societal shifts, the boarding school models and narratives of even ten years ago – never mind twenty-five or fifty years ago –simply can’t meet heightened and realigned expectations. Family perspectives on independent boarding schools aren’t shifting; they’ve already shifted. As with any other sector that is perpetually generating value and demand through innovation and invention, boarding schools must adopt a sensibility of school as practice and preparation for leadership and nimble adaptability in life, not of school as a museum for legacy systems and the status quo. This, by extension, means the end of business as we knew it. Don’t talk about where you’ve been or what you were; talk about where you are going, how you will get there, and why it matters