A day school is not an easy enterprise to run because, for one thing, it is dependent on the local economy and demographics. The closing of a major employer or the departure of young families from the area can challenge the existence of even the best-run private day school. In addition to those local conditions a boarding or residential school is also subject to national and global economic trends. Many American boarding schools have 10-20% of their students drawn from outside the United States. An economic downturn or civil strife can choke off the number of applicants coming from abroad. A weak national economy here at home can make it more difficult for parents to afford a boarding school education for their children. With these considerations in mind let's look at five challenges facing American boarding schools and some common sense solutions to those challenges.
1. The natural resistance to sending children to a residential school.
It is hard enough for most American parents to send their children away to college, much less to boarding school. The idea of sending a fifteen-year-old away to a residential high school meets with serious resistance from most parents. There are many reasons for this reluctance, but the primary ones are the high cost of boarding school and the feeling that the local public high school or private schools can do just as good a job of preparing their children for college. There's also a nagging concern that perhaps their son or daughter is not quite ready to leave home. It would be best to put off that separation until after their children graduate from high school.
The following short video gives an overview of Salisbury School in Salisbury, Connecticut.
This is why marketing your school actively is so critically important. Make a professionally designed website the hub of your marketing program, with dynamic, engaging social media sites as the spokes. Use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram to draw in prospective parents and students to your website where they can find everything they need to know about your school and how to apply for admissions. Parents want to know about your financial aid programs. Make that information easy to get to and even easier to understand. Parents are concerned about the quality of supervision and their children's safety. Address those issues proactively and clearly.
2. Rising costs of operation.
Boarding schools are businesses. True, they are set up as charities. But, let's not kid ourselves, boarding schools have to be run and managed like the substantial businesses which they are. That's why you need a skilled business manager executing the board's business short-term and long-term business plans. Populate your board with experienced men and women who understand how to oversee the current year's activities as well as planning for the future of your school. Anticipating rising costs of operation and developing strategies for dealing with them is an important part of your board's functionality. Organizing and running a successful capital campaign is another one of its duties.
Here is a brief overview of Proctor Academy.
Experienced business people who meet regularly to review progress and plan for the future have an advantage which they bring to the table, namely, that they are not involved in the daily minutia. They see the bigger picture from 10,000 feet. Heed your board's advice. And, yes, have a strategic plan in place. It will help keep everybody focused on where the school is going.
3. Development, endowments, and financial aid.
It can all be a bit daunting. One of your goals is to have as diverse a student population as possible. But that, in turn, means having a large enough financial aid pool to attract applicants from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds. It makes sense to follow the example of several leading boarding schools and develop financial support specifically for the financial aid pool. You will need a professional development staffer to execute your plan. Don't stint in this area.
4. Keeping your competitive edge.
In many ways, this is the toughest challenge your school will face. Everybody in your school from the head of school and the board of trustees on down to the support staff must take charge of keeping your school in the vanguard of change. Read Why Good Companies Go Bad - Harvard Business Review and understand that boarding schools are subject to changes which they must control or risk-reducing market share. For a boarding school that means you have to figure out not only how to fill the 100 seats which you have available for next year, but also try to find 150 applicants for those seats. You all need to make your school such a hot commodity, so desirable as it were, that you have many more applicants than you have places. How do you accomplish that? Connect with companies such as Enrollment Catalyst. Growth will not happen without an action plan tailored to your school's specific situation. So, spend the money now to ensure your school's growth in the future.
Here is an interview with Rick Newberry, founder of Enrollment Catalyst.
5. Facing uncertain financial and political times.
As I write this, the stock market keeps hitting record highs, interest rates are at historic lows, and unemployment is the lowest it has been in years. While that is encouraging, you and I both know that things can change in a nano-second. Suddenly the market plunges, and unemployment rises as the economy sheds jobs. All of those economic changes will impact your school.
The same reasoning applies to politics. Local, state and national politics can all change the way your school operates. Be alert. Stay connected with politicians at every level. Support the National Association of Independent Schools so that it has the resources necessary to lobby on your behalf. Join your regional or state's independent school association. There truly is strength in numbers. Membership in these professional and trade organizations will provide you with information that you and your board can use in your deliberations.
The best way to deal with any challenge is to meet it head-on. Ignore challenges at your peril. Use the experience and talents of your trustees and staff to come up with creative solutions to the challenges which come your way.
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