Prior to the COVID pandemic, researchers had begun to see that institutional loyalty was changing. Practically, within independent schools, this meant a greater focus on retention of two particular types: enrollment and employment. Enrollment offices and Academic Leaders became as focused on retention as they were on new enrollees, which required more interaction across offices. At the same time, Academic Leaders saw greater turnover within their own ranks and among the faculty than in previous generations.
Let’s take a look at studies during the COVID pandemic that note shifts in the ways that people interact with organizations. First, let’s take a look at a survey done by the global consulting firm McKinsey and think about the future impact that this might have on enrollment. McKinsey notes that 73% of Americans changed their behavior toward brand or institutional loyalty during the pandemic, with more shifts occurring in areas that were most greatly impacted by the pandemic. Importantly, they note three drivers for reasons consumers changed brands (in order of importance): value, availability, and quality. Independent schools certainly had an advantage in two of those areas during the COVID pandemic last year. In-person learning tended to be more available in independent schools, and families understood the high quality of their children’s experience, whether on- or off-campus.
That trend has continued this year, as NAIS notes in their recent survey on admissions. The question remains open as to whether families will continue to see the value of the independent school experience once families can again depend on in-person public school options, and whether independent schools can offer more flexibility than local school systems can provide. This may signal a new role for online learning and hybrid options in the coming years. Families are coming to expect schools to adjust to the demands of daily life, rather than re-arranging their lives around school. Schools that focus on retention and building capacity for flexibility will continue to thrive.
Before 2020, schools expected a regular annual cycle for faculty and administrative hiring, with a fairly predictable rate of turnover. At that time, summer hirings were sometimes necessary, but not typical. This year, however, summer hiring exploded. We saw this in real-time in our Pulse survey from late July: only 21% of Academic Leaders reported no unexpected faculty departures this summer, and a whopping 42% reported unexpected hiring for three or positions. Overall, the hiring season was busier, too. Recent NAIS research notes that 28% of schools had significantly more openings this year compared to last and another 30% had slightly more openings. (Remember that this compares to the uneasiness heading into a full year with COVID.) NAIS also notes that administrative turnover is expected to increase in coming years, with 61% of administrators reporting that they expect to leave their current job within five years, with many transitioning away from independent schools.
This fits with national trends. The media dubbed this summer “The Big Quit” or “Great Resignation.” 11.5 million workers quit their jobs in May-July 2021. Gallup reports that 48% of workers are actively looking for new jobs. People are looking for positions that offer greater flexibility and greater meaning. Workplaces that traditionally had little to no flexibility (including schools) became more flexible during COVID, demonstrating that at least some parts of most jobs could be completed remotely. And, employees continue to search for real meaning in their work. As a recent Harvard Business Review article stated, employees “need to be seen for who they are and what they are contributing.” Independent schools have an advantage over most workplaces in the impact and meaning that is inherent in our work, but our schools have traditionally offered little flexibility. Schools that thrive in the future will think creatively about how they can change that.
Take these together, and we can see that independent schools have an unprecedented opportunity to attract families and faculty. At the same time, those families and faculty members are likely to have a more tenuous commitment to our schools than we would have seen in past generations. Our culture is shifting to demand that institutions provide meaning and flexibility. Independent schools aren’t insulated by these shifts; contending with them will require resilience and the courage to change.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)