July: Market Your School’s Hourly Rate

There are two ways schools post their tuition on their respective Web sites, and frankly, both ways can turn most families away from considering your school as the educational environment for their children.

The first is the complete disclosure of the tuition schedule, showing first child tuition, and the lowered rates for the second, third, and fourth children in the family, along with separate schedules for Parishioner, non-Parishioner, and non-Catholic parents, or, in the case of Christian schools, those parents affiliated with a supporting church, or those parents who belong to a congregation which doesn’t support the school.

While school administrators see this as being transparent, upfront and forthright with the cost to attend the school, policies are usually listed on a separate page, as is the availability to apply for and receive financial aid.  These three items (tuition, tuition policies, and financial aid) are three elements that form a system and CANNOT be separated from one another.  The usual reaction of the parent or guardian, however, is, “Let’s look at the numbers,” and, when they do, think, “Whoa – there’s no way we can afford this.”  Why?  Chances are your tuition is a four-digit figure…and it doesn’t matter what you think is a great value, you need to build value first before looking at the numbers!  In ANY type of situation, a four-digit figure is perceived as “large.”  Our society reinforces this mindset through its marketing messages.  A computer priced at $1,000 could be seen as “not affordable,” while the same computer priced at $995 will gain interest.

More proof?  Would you be excited if a donor gave your school a check for $1,000?  Absolutely!  But if a donor gave your school a check for $995, while you would be thankful, I’ll bet someone’s reaction would be, “Why $995?” especially when just an extra $5 would make that a nice, even, round number, and move the donor into the next level of giving.

Posting larger tuitions that go into the five-figure range sends the message that the school is a “private” school, and is probably not affordable to much of the population.  Even though this not might be the case because the school provides an abundant amount of financial aid, that is the message that’s perceived non-verbally by the parent or guardian.  After all, post-secondary education tuition is in the five-figure range, and many parents today have no clue how they’re going to afford that expense when that time comes, as evidenced by today’s student loan crisis.

The second way schools post their tuition on their Web site is by not posting it at all.  While that is viewed as a preferred practice intended to get a parent interested in the school, visit, and then have a conversation regarding the school’s affordability if they feel it’s the right environment for their children’s educational experience, the current prevailing mindset is, “If the price isn’t disclosed, you can’t afford it.”  Again, that’s not the intent, but is probably ingrained in the mindset of the marketplace.

If you need to choose between one or the other, choose the second.  Here’s why.

Tuitions were posted on school Web sites when Web sites first came into existence because they were viewed as “convenience” items.  Think back to the time before schools had Web presences, and parents interested in the school would call to ask what the tuition at the school was.  The person answering the phone would politely answer the caller’s question, and the caller would hang up.  Unfortunately, that did NOTHING to increase enrollment in the school.  In fact, it may have sent the message that the school was an “exclusive” environment, designed to keep people out rather than welcoming people in.

Plus, the person at the front desk had all kinds of other things they needed to attend to, so positing tuition on the Web site eliminated some of the phone calls, and the whole schedule could be posted.

If your school is still posting tuition figures, and not including verbiage on the same page (even prioritizing it above the figures) which says, “Financial aid is available, and we encourage your family to visit and experience our school to see if it’s the right educational environment for your child,” I would go out on a limb and say your school is experiencing a declining enrollment trend.

Why?

The fact of the matter is that tuition figures only matter to those who are planning on paying tuition in full.  When financial aid is present and/or available, the tuition figure becomes moot, and the discussion centers around what can the parents afford, and how can we make this educational environment affordable?

So what’s the third alternative?

Consider posting your tuition in terms of an hourly rate, especially for elementary schools.  I once had a conversation with teachers at a school in Ohio who said, “Our tuition is so high that parents can’t afford it.”  I asked what the tuition was for the first child, and their response was “$1,900.”  I asked them how many days were in their school year, and how many hours were the children in school per day.  They replied that there are 180 days in the school year for the students (teachers know this stuff), and there are 6 hours in their school day.

Let’s do the math.  $1,900 divided by 180 is $10.56 per day, divided by 6 hours is $1.76 per hour.

“So what you’re telling me is that your parents can’t afford $1.76 per hour.”  Their response: “They pay more than that for day care!”

Of course, you might find that your school’s “hourly rate” is a significant one.  A $5,600 per child tuition for 3 children translates to $15.55 an hour.  The point is that how you talk about your tuition is more important that what your school’s tuition, or, more appropriately, your school’s cost of education, is.  You need to be able to guide a parent through the enrollment process, which is a “sales” process, and not a “transactional” one.  To be clear, marketing is what gets them interested in your school and to your school’s door.  Good marketing does NOT increase enrollment.  Good marketing increases “inquiries” to your school.  This is one of the functions of your school’s Web site (the other is as an information repository for families with children enrolled in the school).  Putting “sales” information on it reduces the enrollment process to a simple transaction, and transactional selling processes do not invite customer engagement.

What does that mean?  If you’ve gone to any type of home improvement warehouse, chances are if you were looking for a paint brush, a store employee would tell you, “Yeah – they’re over in aisle 6, next to the paint cans.”  You find your way to the brushes, pick one out, and then go to the checkout to pay for it.  However, there’s a hardware store I know that has a bell ring on the door when someone comes in.  An employee says, “Hello!  Welcome to Swain’s.  What can I help you find today?”  They’ll accompany you to where the item is, and more than likely, they’ll be the person at the checkout since they’ll walk back with you, and ask, “Do you need anything else today?”  That’s not transactional.  That’s relationship-oriented sales.  It’s a “great experience” that drives their business.  And that’s what parents are looking for today – an excellent experience.

It’s been said that a school needs to be a “good” school before it can be a “good” faith-based school.  The issue is that “good” isn’t good enough anymore.  It also was the task of the 2000’s decade to go from “good” to “great,” as the title of the landmark text by Jim Collins suggested.  However, as more schools continue to focus on academic achievement and anti-bullying policies, it’s now not just acceptable to be “great.”  “Excellence” is now the expectation of parents who are considering your faith-based school as the place for their children’s education.  Any experiential deviation from that descriptor can lead to detrimental consequences.

Some will argue that you need money to become excellent.  Before money, however, comes attitude, or, perhaps more correctly, disposition.  There needs to be an attitude of excellence to align with the expectation of excellence.  And even in today’s challenging economic climate, people will pay for excellent experiences.