A central promise that independent schools make to families is: we know your child. For generations, we have made this promise to parents and students, demonstrating this in our programs and in our messaging. And, for some time, schools have developed a “short hand” way to communicate this promise to families: publishing their student to faculty ratios on their websites and in their viewbooks.
It is time to stop publishing those ratios. These ratios hamstring you financially and academically; and, it isn’t the right message for parents that you are trying to reach.
On the financial side, faculty and staff expenditures account for 60-70 percent of a school’s operating budget (or 40-50 percent for boarding schools). The percentage of school expense put towards faculty and staff costs has increased over the last number of years, as we have hired more staff school wide (from development to technology to teaching faculty). Additional staffing is a primary driver for tuitions so greatly outpacing the rate of inflation. This is an unsustainable practice in the industry.
On the academic side, class size is not necessarily a meaningful academic marker as many assume. A Brookings Institution report from 2011 summed up the research on class size: "The academic effects [of decreased class size] seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds. They may also be largest in classrooms of teachers who are less well prepared and effective in the classroom” (Brookings, May 2011). Different class make-ups (and thus different class sizes) could be beneficial to student learning. For example, a school may decide to have a lecture-style class to prepare students for that type of experience in college. A school may use a co-teaching model with a larger than normal class in order to promote project-based learning. Or, a school may move to a personalized or blended learning model, in which case both a ratio of students to teachers and the look and feel of a classroom will be different.
Focus on class size is also not the right marketing angle to attract millennial parents. Millennials seek customization and personalization experiences for themselves and their children. A recent Harvard Business Review article about marketing to millennials notes a change in company strategy: "This strategy required a highly personalized marketing plan that delivered custom experiences by speaking to shoppers on an individual level, rather than addressing broad demographics” (HBR, March 2016). So, marketing from an individual perspective, rather than a group perspective is key. Student to faculty ratios speak to the size of a group… rather than the unique experience of the individual. Better to speak to the custom experience afforded to each student than the group of students of which a student will be a part.
How is this done? Consider this marketing video from Acton Academy, an independent school in Austin, Texas (with branches popping up around the country). Think about the language used in this video: lots of “I” statements from the students denoting the individualization of student work; talk about their individual journey; and emphasis on student choice. All of these messages fit with what we know about successful marketing to millennial students and their parents. Not once is “class size” mentioned on their website or in the video. And, in fact, their “class size” is larger than most independent schools, in part because their educational model allows for larger groups of students and greater customization.
The Acton example does not speak to everyone, nor to every school. But, it does give us ideas and language that effectively speaks to today’s families. And, it does so in a way that does not cause challenge to our finances or academics.
A version of this post originally appeared on Cheney & Company's blog.
“I didn't realize how reliant schools are on tuition for revenue.”
“I didn't realize how much of a school’s costs are in admin/faculty/staff salaries.”
These are common responses we hear in Budget Meets Mission, a course for non-business administrators that I co-teach with Jeff Shields, the President and CEO of NBOA.
Jeff and I love teaching this class together because we get to work with colleagues from around the country in developing greater financial acumen and understanding what levers they have to re-shape the business model of their schools, according to their own unique missions.
It is no secret that independent schools are facing a different financial reality than they did a generation ago. Money seems to be tighter than it used to be, while at the same time, most schools are increasing their tuitions above the rate of inflation, with some day school tuitions surpassing $50,000 in major metropolitan markets. Many school leaders realize their business models need to change.
Unfortunately, much of the strategic conversations around this topic happen in silos because often the academic “side of the house” does not have an understanding in the basics of independent school finances; and the non-academic “side of the house” does not have a good sense of teaching and learning needs.
Harnessing critical, creative ideas from all voices in the school are essential in aligning the school’s future with the demands of today’s families. Academic leaders can’t excuse themselves from conversations about the business and operations of independent schools; and business officers can’t excuse themselves from conversations about teaching and learning. These conversations must be inextricably intertwined.
At One Schoolhouse, we want to provide models and ideas to the challenges independent schools face. That’s why we build our academic program for students around the needs of schools. That’s why we partner with the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) to bring top-notch, in-depth programming to independent school leaders. That’s why we make sure that our tuition and fees only rise at the rate of inflation. And, that’s why we actively work with schools to help them come up with custom solutions for their campus. We want to partner with you to strengthen your school’s financial sustainability.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)