CEO Notebook

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO
@shieldsNBOA

Meeting Our Market

From Net Assets NOW, February 18, 2020. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

Over the past several years, schools have been working on various tuition and financial aid models to adapt to market forces today and into the future. These models have included different forms of indexed or variable tuition, restrained tuition growth and tuition resets among others. The goals are similar: to reduce sticker shock, highlight availability of financial aid, increase prospective families’ interest in independent education and perhaps most importantly, demonstrate that value and financial commitment are well aligned. As my enrollment management colleagues would say, it is important to “widen the funnel” of potential families to stabilize or increase our schools’ enrollment numbers. In fact, NBOA has partnered with the Enrollment Management Association for two years now to explore these trends.

While this thinking is critical to securing a school’s financial health, my own experience in the independent school enrollment process — as the father of a school-aged daughter — has shown me that another area appears ripe for innovation and collaboration: the admissions application.

Consider a family searching for independent high schools for their child. The family decides on three or four schools and begins the application process. Paying the fees, scheduling admissions tests and even securing teacher recommendations require a moderate commitment of time and finances, which may be cumbersome for some families. On top of that, the student is asked to write approximately 15 different essays of varying but significant lengths. The topics range from “Tell us about a book you read recently and why you liked it” — perfectly appropriate for a rising ninth grader — to “Describe your philosophy of life,” which may be difficult for many 70-year-old’s to answer. Parents too are expected to write about their child according to requirements just different enough to preclude using the same responses on multiple school applications. As the process grows longer, the family who was pursuing independent schools as a stretch or even a sacrifice is beginning to doubt whether this was a good idea at all. I admit I am not an admissions professional, but I wonder how important a role these essays play in the overall admissions process. My fear is that these requirements are a speed bump or even a roadblock in the process that many of our schools can ill afford.

I share this because it appears that schools are working well together in many ways to level the playing field, making it easier for our families to consider our schools. A step that seemingly hasn’t yet adapted to the times are the dreaded essays. I don’t mean to proselytize the SSAT’s Standard Application Online, but it is an example of a modern approach that helps schools work together for the good of independent education.

A study released last year found that colleges that joined the Common App saw applications increase by an average of 12% compared to years before joining. After ten years with the Common App, applications increased roughly 25%. We in the independent school world are daunted by demographics, increased PK-12 options, and changing parent values, among other deterring factors, and we want our institutions to appeal to a wider number of families. Yet we continue to operate the admissions process as if we are in the driver’s seat. We are in a buyer’s market, as realtors would say, but it may appear to some families that they need to prove themselves worthy of our schools’ education. This perception does not serve any of our schools well.

On the list of innovations that our schools should consider to secure their financial health, please add the admissions application. When I think of the time and effort school leaders are putting into sophisticated and necessary marketing strategies and pricing models, it seems unwise to tether those models to application processes that may have survived long past their utility.

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
President and CEO

Jeff has been NBOA's president and CEO since March 2010. Prior to joining NBOA, he spent almost 10 years at the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), serving most recently as senior vice president and chief planning officer. An active member of the American Society of Association Executives, Jeff earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation in 2002 and was selected as an ASAE Fellow in 2008. He currently serves as a trustee for the One Schoolhouse, Inc., and previously served as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.

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