As I watched the commercials and halftime show of the 2022 Super Bowl, it struck me. The entire marketing plan for the event was focused on Generation X and Generation Y (Millennials), not Baby Boomers. Commercials spotlighted crypto-currency and electric vehicles, not Harley Davidson and traditional “wealth management” companies. Likewise, the halftime show consisted of artists most definitely not of the Baby Boomer generation. Instead of Bruce Springsteen or Aerosmith, we saw Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Fifty Cent, Eminem, Mary J Blige, and Kendrick Lamar. This lineup would never have had a place in a Super Bowl even five years in the past.
In the for-profit sector, consumer habits are well-studied and taken seriously. An entire consulting field exists solely to monitor and predict consumer preferences and trends that will impact global markets. Who is buying what, why, and at what price point, are normal indicators used to develop marketing strategies and adjust products in order to meet the shifting needs and demands of consumers. This can range from shoe styles to cars to chicken sandwiches.
Trends and demands are studied, adjusted for, maximized, and catered to. Failure to pay heed to changes within the consumer marketplace or adjust to changing demands will result in a downturn in sales, and in some cases, lead to a business or even whole industry becoming obsolete. Sears, Kodak, Blockbuster, and Toys R’ Us are just a few examples of companies that dominated the marketplace from as early as the 1930s only to cease to exist within just a few years of changes to the markets and consumer habits.
Most independent schools are sustained via tuition revenue. The operating budget of schools can be generated via multiple sources but tuition accounts for anywhere between 55% and 90%+ of these budgets. As such, schools must work hard to identify, attract, and yield high and full-pay students in order to remain in business. The challenge for schools at present is two-fold. First, schools are starting to see the impacts of market pressures that are making enrollment management more challenging. Declining birth rates (2021 was the lowest birthrate on record in the U.S.), greater competition from other types of schools, increased financial aid, and ever-higher operating costs, are all pushing schools on the fiscal side.
However, an oft-overlooked second factor in the independent school world is the fundamental change to the consumer base. As mentioned before, Gen X and Gen Y parents are now the dominant age cohort responsible for buying and paying for an independent school education. These two groups have a higher debt load than the Baby Boomer generation, with much of that being attributed to student loans. Current national student loan debt sits at over $1.8 trillion dollars (Department of Education) and is putting pressure on these two generational cohorts not seen in years past. From home-buying to having children, Gen X and Gen Y parents simply have less disposable income to pay independent school tuition.
As well, Gen X and Gen Y parents have very different consumer habits than those of the Baby Boomer generation. Gen X and Gen Y have less brand loyalty, value an experience over a “thing”, choose where to spend their money based on a products’ alignment with their own personal beliefs, and value relationships over “labels”. Even those in the high-income brackets have different spending habits than those of previous generations. This fact is coupled with the reality that the percentage of Gen X and Gen Y earners in the highest income brackets has declined. According to a 2019 survey carried out by Pew, Gen Y earns less than Baby Boomers at the same age points and has increased debt loads (Pew Research Center, 2019).
The parents of rising high school children came of age after the fall of the USSR and in the shadow of the post-9/11 world. They are deeply spiritual but less religious. They view sustainability as a key focus. They are often remote workers. They are fairly informal, with 20% of Millennials willing to turn down a job if it requires wearing a tie (LinkedIn workplace survey, 2021). They are “always connected”, meaning they live in a 24/7 real-time world. The question then is whether your school is offering an educational product that the market is seeking.
When creating an admissions marketing plan, two points must be addressed; first, what educational product are parents seeking for their children, and second, how does your school’s program match that demand? The challenge/opportunity in answering these questions rests in the individual nature of independent schools. Geographic location, school typology (boarding/day, religious/secular, etc), and the financial realities facing individual schools vary greatly. Thus, taking an individualized view is paramount.
- What do demographic changes look like in your area if you are a day school?
- Have people moved to or away from the area?
- Have regional businesses suffered and as a result caused a greater need for financial aid?
- What have the public options done or not done that might impact your marketing?
- Is your tuition price point realistic or is it about the appearance of a “luxury” item that simply increases the financial aid budget?
- Do your programs match your mission statement and are they consistent throughout the school?
- Do you offer programs that stand out from peer schools or is it hard to differentiate the value proposition of your school from others?
- If located in an area of growth, who then are the people moving to your region, and what habits, beliefs, experiences, and tendencies are they bringing with them?
- Finally, are your programs catering to earlier generations of parents and students or the current and future generations?
At a time of increasingly rapid change in nearly every area of life, schools must make financial, programmatic, and cultural choices that address those changes and how they relate to the families of the future. If a small school is trying to market and promote a top-tier football team, is that decision yielding students? Likewise, promoting AP courses at a time when the utility and value of that program is being truly questioned appears regressive in nature. Schools would be wise to pay close attention to the higher education market as a marker of what is likely to be a significant shift in the system. A move towards career focus by state schools as well as a national rejection of SAT scores should be a signal to independent schools that what defined them in the past will not define them in the future.
Is your school asking parents, students, and colleges what they want or expect from an independent school education? Surveying current and future parents regarding what they want for their children is paramount in gaining an understanding of what is driving their willingness to pay tuition. Are they focused on “achievement” or something else? Character education, civics, “happiness”, emotional safety, life skills, and DEI initiatives are likely to be at the top of the list for many current and future parents in all but the most traditional regions. It is important to note that these “profiles” are based on the aggregate, with outliers existing at each end of the spectrum.
Yet when building your marketing strategy, these generational attributes need to be taken seriously and utilized to better understand the current customer base as well as those coming online in the next 5-7 years. This starts with a review of current programs and practices. While strategic plans may map out the future of the school based on what trustees might envision, this vision may be out of sync with market realities. Surveying current parents and utilizing existing data is the key to understanding what future customers are willing to pay for. The true challenge is that a school is not made up of just a single generational cohort and thus any changes or updates to a school’s program need to account for current parents, current students, future parents, future students, current faculty members, future faculty members, alumni, and trustees. This is a significant challenge as these groups represent at least four generations and likely a fifth (Gen Alpha).
How then do schools work to attract new families who are willing to pay significant tuition for a product they have deemed worthy of that investment while not alienating older faculty members, alumni, or trustees? Presenting data and allowing stakeholders to have a voice is key to “cooking the conflict” (Heifetz and Lynsky, 2002). Additionally, staying true to the school’s mission is a must. Mission-aligned change is easier to justify and market than what may be perceived as something that does not align with the mission. Being willing to have challenging conversations with stakeholders helps them to be heard, and hearing a person’s views is important in order to bring them along. So where does this all fit together?
Clarity and purpose are the keys to meeting the needs of both future and present school stakeholders across the generation spectrum. While some groups might have more sway than others, knowing what each generational cohort values and why is the starting point for “bridging and buffering” the generational divide.