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How to Market Your School During a Recession
Connor Gleason

Rising inflation, unemployment, and global politics have all contributed to fears over a looming recession. And while an economic setback is difficult to predict, the chances of a recession happening sooner rather than later have increased in recent months.

Below are points along the Conference Board’s Coincident Economic Index (CEI), a collection of economic indicators that tend to coincide with a recession. And when paired with private school enrollment figures, the two seem to often run hand in hand.

As families lose jobs amid a higher cost of living, the “luxury” of a private school education is often the first thing on the chopping block when money is tight. During the last few recessions, independent and private school enrollment dipped as families juggled financial loss and high tuition rates. 

Between 2001-2011, private school enrollment fell 17 percent and suffered an especially deep drop during the Great Recession when the GDP saw a 3.1 percent decrease from December 2007-June 2009. From 2006 to 2009, private school enrollment during a recession dropped by about 2.5 percent, and sixty-one percent of schools saw an increase in attrition rates from 2004-2005 to 2009-2010.

When times are tough, there’s pressure on schools to save money on marketing, too. As budgets are tightened, how do marketing departments do more with less, and how can you sympathetically balance the financial hardships of families with the marketing and enrollment goals of your school?

What does a recession mean for marketing your private school?

When the economy throws us a challenge, your school needs to shift into high gear by focusing on what you can control, and create solutions to overcome obstacles. Marketing a school during a recession can be challenging, but there are several strategies that can be effective and actually save your school money in the long run:

Don’t stop advertising

Wait, weren’t we just talking about saving money? It may feel counterintuitive to spend money when there’s less of a budget, but now's not the time to cut back on your digital marketing. Why?

  • There’s increased competition: During a recession, many schools may cut back on their marketing efforts, leaving a void that can be filled by other schools — your school. By continuing to market, you can stand out from the competition and make a bigger splash, especially if other schools do pull back on their PPC or social media ads.
  • You still need to maintain enrollment: A recession can lead to a decrease in enrollment, which can have an impact on your school's financial stability. But by continuing to market the school, you can keep some fuel on the fire and attract new students to maintain a steady pipeline of prospects. 
  • You still need to highlight your unique value proposition: Marketing during a recession is an opportunity to showcase what makes your school valuable. This can help potential students and their families understand why your school is worth their investment, even during difficult economic times. The value of your school hasn’t changed just because money is tight.
  • You still need to build brand awareness: Marketing will help build brand awareness and establish your school as a trusted and reliable institution. This can help maintain your reputation and attract prospective students in the future, even after the recession has ended.

Pro Tip: Allocate about 15-20 percent of your marketing budget for experimentation and save the remaining budget for what you know works well (more on this later).

Focus on affordability

When families are cutting back, it’s even more critical for your school to present its options for affording your education and your opportunities for financial aid.

  • Offer flexible payment options: Payment plans or scholarships can make the cost of attending your school more manageable during tough economic times.
  • Highlight the value of education: Emphasize the long-term benefits of education and how it can lead to more options for higher-ed, better job prospects, and a fulling career.
  • Elevate your tuition model: Wouldn’t it be better to collect some tuition, rather than miss an opportunity to collect any revenue? If your school needs to fill a few seats, it may make sense to adopt a net tuition revenue model and welcome more students to your campus.
SCH tuition page on a smartphone

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s Tuition and Financial Aid page leads with the value of its experience first. Videos, testimonials, fast facts, and a host of information about affordability help answer the question: What makes an SCH education? By placing an emphasis on affordability and value, they focus on the investment and paths families can take to make their education a viable option.

Create stronger community partnerships

When times are tough, communities are there for one another. So partner with local businesses and organizations to provide students and the community with practical learning experiences and networking opportunities. 

Offering free or low-cost events, like hosting conferences or meeting spaces, offer value to potential students and their families. Opening your facilities and rental spaces for workshops, events, and programs can help bring in extra revenue and market your campus to the external community. 

Keep Reading: Space For Rent: Facility Rental Ideas for Your School

Partner with the pros

When your marketing department has fewer resources to work with, it’ll be even more important to stretch your precious marketing budget. Schools partnering with a strategic marketing consultant during a recession can utilize their expertise and make your dollars go even further. Why?

  • Expertise and experience: A marketing consultant has experience in developing and implementing effective marketing strategies, especially during challenging economic times. They know what to do and when to do it — they can help your school identify the most effective marketing techniques, and when time is money, they can help you reach your target audience quickly.
  • Fresh perspective: A marketing partner brings a fresh perspective and can offer new ideas and approaches to marketing that your school may not have considered before. They can also help your school stay ahead of the competitors and navigate changes in the market.
  • Cost savings: Hiring a marketing consultant can actually save money in the long run. They can help your school optimize its marketing budget and help avoid costly marketing mistakes that could negatively impact its reputation and enrollment.
  • Improved results:  A focused approach to obtaining exactly what you want will help save time and deliver the results you’re looking for, whether it’s reaching a new audience, rebranding, or hitting a new enrollment benchmark.

Over the course of a multi-year partnership with Finalsite Advantage, The Mead School has tackled multiple long-term projects, including a website redesign, new marketing materials, admissions and enrollment initiatives, rebranding, and a new approach to internal communications.

Mead school homepage

”Thanks to the partnership and all the tools Finalsite provides us, it’s helped us be more efficient,” said Jeannette Baxendale, Mead’s director of marketing and assistant director of admissions. “All the tools that we have at our disposal now make our job much easier.”

Leverage word-of-mouth marketing

As a recession looms, the importance of word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing can be particularly valuable because:

  • It’s cost-effective: Word-of-mouth is a cost-effective way to reach potential students and their families. It relies on the recommendations and experiences of current students, parents, and alumni, rather than paid advertising or other more costly marketing tactics.
  • It increases trust: Recommendations from people who have first-hand experience with your school carry a high level of trust and credibility. Potential students and their families are more likely to trust the opinions of people they know, compared to more traditional marketing methods.
  • It builds personal connections: Earned media allows for a personal connection between potential students and those who have already experienced your school. This can help potential students feel more confident in their decision to attend your school.
  • It creates brand ambassadors: Word-of-mouth marketing can also turn current students, parents, and alumni into brand ambassadors for your school. They can help spread positive messages about your school and attract new students, even during tough economic times.

WOM marketing can be a valuable tool for schools during a recession. It can help reach potential students and their families, build trust, and maintain a steady enrollment, all while maximizing limited marketing resources. Oh, and it’s free.

Cut costs where it makes sense

Is this the year you finally move your student handbook online? Can you avoid printing that concert program, because families look at it once for three minutes and then it ends up on the floor anyway?

Take a good, hard look at your marketing budget and see where you can save money — start with printing costs and reimagine how you can present that information and content online and through your school’s website.

Keep Reading: It's Time to Digitize Your School's Student Handbook — 9 Reasons Why

Stay positive

We open up our social media apps or weekly school newsletter, all hoping for connections and inspiring stories. When your school community is going through a particularly hard time, either financially, socially, or during times of crisis, that warm and fuzzy content becomes even more important to families.

Baylor School feel good social post

Way back at the end of 2009, Baylor School shared a video on Facebook about a community service project celebrating the academic achievements of young students in the area — the perfect way to spread some cheer and focus on success during tough economic times across the country.

Double down on what does work

If you know student success stories are super popular on social media, keep sharing them. If you know your inspiring videos are what keeps families on your admissions page, keep producing them. If you’re already seeing the results you want from your marketing efforts and you know that content resonates with your target audience, double down and produce more of what works.

Key takeaway

Without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to tell what the future may bring. But if tough economic times do enter the headlines, thinking creatively, making strategic decisions, and staying positive can help maximize your marketing campaign efforts and make doing more — with less — that much easier.

Digital marketing and consulting services for schools. Click here to request a consultation!

Connor Gleason Headshot


Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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