Affording our Value Proposition

The pressure is mounting on our independent schools, particularly those in northern New England. Demographic changes and slow economic development are making it more challenging to enroll mission appropriate students. Our schools are working to authentically convey, what feels like an ever-challenging message of “value proposition”. In additional to enrollment challenges, the requirement to secure resources to support students, and facilities to create the “best environment” for our children to learn and grow is for many school Heads is perhaps our greatest challenge. Tuitions continue to rise above inflation. Our common understanding of what a child needs to be well educated in the 21st century is changing with each passing year.

There is no question that ISANNE schools have worked hard over these many years to address financial challenges, and in many cases to lead initiatives to address the evolving and expanding values and value of our unique schools’ missions. Our fundamental independent school ideal that allows for our teachers and schools to be the designers of our curricula, “why we exist,” is at risk, as the “market and mission” issues weigh heavily on us all. (We all recognize that for individual school sustainability and the advancement of real learning objectives, there is increasing requirement to personalize our programs.)  As individual schools, and as a group of schools, ISANNE is working with us to differentiate from the traditional public school model.  At the same time, we also strive to differentiate from our own independent school peers. As always, families must evaluate which school environment is best for their child. More and more, the cost of education, even whether an independent school education alone is worth their financial investment.

Since I became Head of School in 2003, our boarding and day school tuitions have almost doubled. Looking back on these past number of years, it’s difficult not to feel somewhat responsible for the “out of control” tuition. I guess the question continues to be, “out of whose control?” Where is the pressure coming from that requires us to continue to grow and change and increase cost at our peril? Are we doing this to ourselves? How can costs be managed so that we don’t go broke while raising our prices? As leaders, we continue to feel pressure to spend precious resources in order to raise additional funds that support innovation and growth, Excellence is expensive. We continue to borrow and spending thousands, if not millions of precious dollars on facilities and programs. Somehow, even direct “people expenses”, to pay faculty and staff fairly for all they do for our students, Financial aid budgets soar. Educational change is essential to remain relevant What - or who - will stop it, or at least slow it down?

Over the next five years, we are taking a comprehensive view of our revenue and expense model and of our deployment faculty’s time and task requirements. As one trustee whispered to me in a planning meeting, “We need to size to quality.” We are looking at core/key academic, social, and co-curricular areas as well as our major cost centers to determine how we can stave off the wave of increases that are already beyond what many people can or are willing to afford.

Parents and families, and most importantly, teachers will do all they can to make it possible for students to thrive “where they are planted.”   We all believe in our enrollment plans to ensure that the students we matriculate have the capacity to succeed in our schools.  In addition, we all believe as independent school teachers and leaders that enduring value of education is not measured in the financial return on investment. Today, even those who agree with us, are questioning our value based on cost.

In so many ways, these are also exciting times for us as independent school leaders, and educators. So many of our ISANNE schools are doing exciting work in curriculum and pedagogy. Together, as enhanced by the upcoming cultural competency conference, we are looking to be of greater service to our students by expanding our offerings, doing all we can to make our schools’ education to students from desired social-economic communities. We are thriving as learning communities where our families believe what we believe, and where we share similar values of independence and goals for our children. Surely our Nation and our world need our ISANNE graduates to contribute to whatever communities they join. The biggest test we are facing today is can we afford to do it? Can we afford not to?

About The Author

Mike Schafer, Head of School, Kimball Union Academy

In 2003, Mike Schafer was appointed Kimball Union’s 18th Head of School since its founding in 1813.

Widely recognized for his vision, energy, and strong leadership, Mike has been instrumental in the adoption and execution of the Academy’s long-range strategic plan and campus master plan. Mike’s leadership has earned confidence, mutual trust, and investment throughout the Kimball Union and independent school community, helping to advance the vision for the Academy as it celebrates its bicentennial and approaches its third century.

Mike represents Kimball Union on a number of national, regional, and local education and philanthropic organizations. He is a trustee at Berwick Academy in Maine and serves on the Independent School Association of Northern New England (ISANNE) Board of Directors.

Mike is a graduate of Colby College and holds an M.Ed. from Harvard. He completed the Tuck Executive Program Program (TEP) at Dartmouth College in 2011 and was awarded a fellowship to the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership’s 2014 Heads of Schools program.