In the PK-12 education vertical today, there is a 15-year span of educational experiences.  Today, those 15 years are broken up in a number of different ways, as well as not broken up at all.  Some Private, Christian, Catholic and other faith-based schools have a PK-12 curriculum, but may have different grades housed at different campuses.  Other educational systems have a building housing the PK to 2nd grade program, an intermediate school for grades 3 to 5, a junior high school for grades 6 through 8 and a senior high school for grades 9-12.  Of course, there could be other combinations, such as the traditional PK-8 elementary school and the 9-12 secondary school, or a PK-5 elementary program, and a 6-12 middle/high school program.

Whatever the configuration, many schools find themselves in crisis today.  Changing demographics, unstable economic conditions, concerns regarding standardized testing, and the emergence of STEM/STEAM/STREAM curriculums as well as new educational environments like charter and cyber schools in addition to homeschooling, not to mention the changes that the been wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, have impacted today’s parents of young children as they seek out the best educational environment for their youngsters.  Safe and caring communities, social media awareness, anti-bullying efforts, a dedication to academic excellence and, for faith-based schools, a strong emphasis on the ability to infuse the faith tradition into the curriculum and live values such as service and sacrifice are issues which require constant attention by a school’s staff and administration.

It’s a lot for anyone’s plate.  And the plate keeps getting more and more piled upon it.

There are five things, however, that seem to be overlooked when planning for the future of a faith-based or private school: the donors, the employees, the champions, the market (read, the parents) and the experience.

While each of these elements could merit and article of their own, the first three will be discussed in next month’s “Next Practice” Insight; the fourth and fifth are the main topic of this article, simply because they’re so intimately connected.

The Market

For this discussion, the market isn’t the place where you buy food.  The market is simply a group of people who has a need for a particular good or service.  Marketing makes “the market” aware of the particular good or service, and the target market is the subset of the group of people who is most prone to use the good or service.  In the case of any school, but for purposes of this discussion, a tuition-charging school, that would be women 25-39 years of age with young children.

It also helps to know which generation these women belong to so that strategies can be developed so that marketing can have a significant impact upon the target market.

Without going into birth year calculations to rationalize the delineation, it can be said that parents in today’s schools, are, for the most part, split, with the split occurring right around the mid-point of that 15-year span.  While there is some overlap due to parents with multiple children, parents with children in grades PK3-7th grade are Millennials, while parents of children in grade 8 through 12 are members of Generation X.

What’s the issue?  Most marketing efforts of schools target “parents.”  They want the best for their children, and are seeking out the best educational environment for their children, right?  At least that’s how a number of schools market themselves, spotlighting academic excellence, a safe and caring environment, and, especially for faith-based schools, an education espousing the tenets of the faith tradition.  The focus is squarely on the children.

But from a “business” standpoint, the focus needs to be on the people who will pay for the education.

Parents of middle school through high school students belong to Generation X – the “Me” Generation.  “That’s my child!” they exclaim, and not “That’s Johnny!”  An exit survey done a number of years ago asking parents why their children are no longer enrolled in the Catholic schools of a certain diocese had a surprising recurring theme: “You closed my school.”  Notice they did not say, “The school where my kids went to school closed.”  This was even a more powerful statement because parents claimed ownership of the school – even though “their” school was commonly thought to the school they attended when they were younger.

As for the parents currently enrolling their children in the elementary school space, they are Millennials.  They’re not so much about “I” and “me,” but about “we” and “us,” connected by a technological social network, where relationships are closer than those they have with the people on their street or even their own family members (unless they’re also part of their social networks).

Since parents start making decisions about where their children will be enrolled in high school when said child is in the 5th grade, it would make sense that a high school would have a completely different approach to marketing than would an elementary school, but not because they’re different educational environments, but because their target markets are different.

The Experience

Uniting these two different groups, however, is the question, “What’s it all about?”  While the question was asked in the songs of the 1960’s and 1970’s, many in school leadership think that “it’s all about” one thing or another.  Some think that “It’s all about the money,” since with enough money the school could offer financial aid or reduce tuition to make it affordable to a greater number of parents.  Some think that it’s all about the quality of education, where smaller class sizes foster the opportunity for more personalized instruction, and significant extra-curricular activities help to attract those families who see these attributes in their local public schools.  Still others see “The Big 3” (faith identity, excellent academics, and a safe and caring environment) as the reason parents will choose one school over another, even though the school just a few miles away may also say they emphasize faith identity, excellent academics and a safe and caring environment).

The reality is that it’s not about “this” or “that” – it’s all about ALL of it!  Parents today are not looking for “satisfaction.”  They want to be blown away by “The Experience.”  They have this attitude for the other products they buy and services they consume, and, unfortunately, your school is no different.  Indeed, you expect them to sacrifice for their children, but that’s a lesson that’s taught in the school.  Generation X just doesn’t sacrifice, since they’re the first generation to realize that their life may not be better than the generations that have come before them.  Previous generations learned from their parents to do this.  Unfortunately, when single-parent families started to become a news item, and the children began to be called “latchkey” children, there may have not been an adult at home all the time to learn what it means “to be an adult,” and needed to fend for themselves until their parent came home from work, and then may have been too tired to take on the chores of the household and deal with the children.

Further, sharing the rationale that a school’s tuition is several thousand dollars per child because that’s what an education costs is a logical one – and logic doesn’t “sell.”  To put it bluntly, they understand, but they don’t care.  “Care” is where the affective domain kicks in, and I’m sure you’ll agree that any significant price tag has an element of emotion attached to it.  Sure, you may need a new vehicle, but one with heated seats would really be nice on those cold winter days.  Emotion “sells.”  Customers today want to be “thrilled” by their experience.  It’s not about setting high expectations, it’s about surprising parents with the positive unexpected experience.

Indeed, today’s consumers (read: “parents”) will pay for “experiences.”  That’s why they’ll go on a cruise, or drive (not necessarily own) a new luxury car, or take a trip to the amusement parks in Florida during the school year.  It’s why parents today will take a hot-air balloon ride, skydive or drive around the racetrack at speeds that are double (or more) the legal street limit.

That begs the question: Are your school’s parents “thrilled” with your school?  Or simply, “Completely satisfied?”