One of the biggest challenges for independent schools has always been selling the value of private education. In the late-70s, median school tuition was just $554, but since then, tuition has escalated at twice the rate of the consumer price index.
With the national average of a private education being $12,271 per year, the costly investment is already a burden for many families, not to mention a sore subject for marketing and admission offices. After all, it’s not always easy to compete with the free local school district down the road.
Every year, school leadership is faced with the difficult task of setting tuition for the upcoming school year. With each increase, many families face an expanding divide between private education and affordability.
Private school costs have returned to pre-pandemic levels with an average increase of 2.9 percent in 2022, compared to 1.05 percent in 2021. As these pressures continue to impact private schools, boards and leaders must find ways to ease the tremendous burden placed upon enrollment offices to encourage families to invest in their child's education.
When communicating with families about your school’s decision to raise tuition, it’s important to:
- Be clear
- Be transparent and
- Be empathetic
Without knowing the financial circumstances of every family, it’s difficult to predict how each family could react, but how can admission offices raise school tuition thoughtfully and still balance the mission of the school with realistic operational costs?
But first, what are some trends driving tuition prices these days?
Why is private school tuition rising?
When it comes to rising tuition prices, many factors are outside a school’s control. Inflation, higher costs of living, investment in classroom tech, and additional learning support during COVID have all contributed to the upward trend, and between 2007-2008 and 2020-2021, there was a 28 percent increase in private school tuition overall.
But in recent years, there’s also been an increase in the number of employees who have advanced degrees and larger compensation, which has driven costs. Salaries and benefits are a major incentive to hire and retain the best faculty and staff, and as we’ve seen with the great resignation, many schools and public districts are pulling out all stops to retain and attract the best teachers.
So if rising tuition costs are inevitable, how can schools communicate the changes, reinforce the value your school provides, and hopefully, reduce the blowback from families?
Addressing concerns from families with empathy can do wonders for gaining buy-in.
Communicate early and often
Communicate the changes in a timely manner and give families plenty of notice so they can plan accordingly. When the changes have been approved, send a notification to families as far in advance as possible, and then follow up with important re-enrollment deadlines, if applicable. Also, be sure to include suggestions to help mitigate the cost of tuition through financial assistance, grants, or education loans.
Visitation School used a website notification to catch the eyes of parents and remind families about the deadline for financial grants. By linking to its page on tuition and financial assistance, they’re also providing more support about the tuition and payment process and offering resources for current and prospective families.
Clearly state the reason for the tuition increase, such as rising operational costs or the addition of new programs and services. Many families assume tuition is arbitrary, and for most schools, tuition doesn’t even come close to covering the full cost of the annual operating budget.
Mention where the school has been able to reduce costs and showcase the exciting new programs, upgraded facilities, or additional offerings your school was able to introduce this year. If there hasn’t been an increase in previous years, or this year’s increase is minimal in comparison, it might help put this change into perspective.
It’s also important to present the idea of staying afloat in a competitive market — regular market surveys from area schools can provide context for what other schools are charging.
Create a comprehensive financial aid and tuition webpage
The Calhoun School’s tuition and financial aid page provides parents with a clear understanding of its policies and guidelines for tuition and financial aid — it outlines the payment plan options, answers FAQs, offers supporting testimonials, and when families are ready to apply, they can directly schedule an appointment for an interview with Calhoun Admissions through its enrollment software.
Be open to feedback
Be prepared to address families' concerns or objections — some may not bat an eye, and others may consider leaving your school altogether. Either way, be open to (and even encourage) feedback and be willing to listen to their perspectives, needs, and financial circumstances. Schedule parent webinars or in-person meetings for families to ask questions and gain clarity about the discernment process the school went through to come to this decision.
Showcase your school’s value
Family retention is a year-round effort, and that cumulative effect really comes into play during big announcements like these. All year long, admission and marketing offices need to be offering supportive evidence behind the value of a family’s investment through powerful testimonials, success stories, and why families don’t just choose to enroll at your school but stay at your school.
Those efforts can’t be an afterthought, either. Regular success stories from alumni, testimonials from students, parents, faculty, and staff, and daily reminders of why your school is special can have a subtle but cumulative effect on the value of a parent’s investment.
Pro Tip: A quick call or note from a teacher or staff member about a positive interaction with a student can go a long way!
Communications from the enrollment and business office
Finalsite’s enrollment management system allows families to easily schedule 1:1 meetings with the financial aid office, the enrollment director, or anyone available to discuss the tuition changes. Remember, if you’re able to work with families and give them plenty of opportunities to ask questions, the situation will strike a different tone.
With just a few clicks, families interested in Thornton Academy can not only submit their inquiry, but also schedule a campus tour, a 1:1 meeting, request more information, and even RSVP for an upcoming prospective student event with its enrollment software. To support current families, notifications can be easily sent within the system to communicate important announcements and upcoming deadlines.
Furthermore, Finalsite’s EMS offers tuition and billing software, enabling your admissions office to streamline tuition payments, automate reminders to staff and families, and customize payment schedules to give you the flexibility to meet families halfway. With custom billing cycles and options that meet their financial needs, families can even check their payment status from their mobile phones.
Rises in tuition account for the cost of operating the school, attracting and retaining the best faculty, and ultimately, providing an extraordinary experience for students. Communicating those changes with transparency and empathy can address a sensitive subject with grace and help retain the families that are so integral to your school community.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
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.
With 11 years of experience as a director of enrollment management and advancement in private schools, Cristy brings extensive admissions and enrollment expertise to her role at Finalsite. Her master's thesis focused on stemming enrollment loss in Catholic schools, and her doctoral dissertation focused on internal communication practices at private schools and the capacity afforded to the enrollment manager to positively impact enrollment growth. She lives in Newbury Park, CA and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son.