Friday, January 28, 2011

Marketing your school beyond student:teacher ratios

I was reading a recent blog post, The Paradox of Our Success by Marc Frankel, in which independent schools are challenged to find “a whole new way of explaining our product; one that isn't so connected with a high-cost method of production.”

Mr. Frankel is referring to the increasingly less sustainable strategy of marketing independent schools “on the basis of rich student-to-teacher ratios, at least as compared with parochial and public schools.”  In addition, Mr. Frankel points out that this ratio “is the primary rationale used to justify a tuition price point around 2X higher than parochial alternatives.”

There is no doubt that the relatively small student:teacher ratios have been an attractive draw for many families.  I also agree that with the existing economic realities, the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) is wise in advising “schools to drop the low ratio language in favor of stressing that every child will be known and that no one will fall through the cracks.”  The NAIS advice is key, but Mr. Frankel makes an interesting point about public perception of knowing every child and growing ratios.  Thus, the challenge to find a “new way of explaining our product; one that isn't so connected with a high-cost method of production.“

I have a few thoughts and ideas.

  1. If your entire marketing strategy has been based on student:teacher ratio, then you haven’t had a marketing strategy.
  2. You can begin to turn your ratio strategy around by adopting a proactive “customer satisfaction” strategy.  One suggestion is to consider a “taking it personally” framework.
  3. Growing ratios may cause anxiety if they are not linked to class size.  Find a way to turn the conversation around to class size (which should still be relatively smaller).
  4. Profile your “product” and look for marketable items.  For example, if you are a college prep school then survey recent graduates.  How prepared do they feel in relation to their peers?  How do your alums GPAs rank at their colleges compared to other schools?  Also, look at what you do and dig out your areas of particular success.  How do you incorporate your arts, athletics, etc. into your mission?  What types of electives do you offer?  Does your curriculum offer any advantages?  At my school, we focus heavily on both written and spoken communication as a hallmark of a liberal arts education.  As such, we begin teaching a separate literature and composition course in the middle school grades.    
  5. Ask your families what they value most.  Ask them why they came and why they stay.  Use that information to guide your strategic marketing.
  6. Be comfortable with who you are.  Know and live your mission.  Work to make sure your school’s mission and ethos line up.  If they do, you will have a solid basis for the claims you make regarding your school.

I am a believer that there is always a market for an outstanding school that delivers on its claims of excellence.  While you may need to “educate” your potential families differently, you should certainly be able to find new, creative, and potentially powerful ways to “explain your product.”

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