Affording our Value Proposition

Pressure is mounting on our independent schools, particularly those in northern New England. Demographic changes and slow economic development are making it increasingly difficult to enroll mission-appropriate students. Our schools are working to authentically convey a “value proposition” message. In addition to enrollment challenges, our need to secure resources to support students and facilities to create the best environment for our children to learn and grow is perhaps the greatest challenge for many school Heads. No matter what we try, tuitions continue to rise above inflation. Our common understanding of what a child needs to be well educated in the 21st century is necessarily changing with each passing year.

There is no question that ISANNE schools have worked hard over the years to address financial challenges, and have led initiatives to address the evolving value of our schools’ unique missions. As market pressures weigh heavily on us all, the fundamental independent school ideal that allows our teachers and schools to be the designers of curricula, the “why we exist,” is at risk. We recognize that for individual school sustainability and the advancement of real learning objectives, the demand for personalized programs is increasing. ISANNE is working with us to differentiate our institutions from the traditional public school model.  At the same time, we also strive to differentiate ourselves from our independent school peers. As always, families must evaluate which school environment is best for their child and whether the cost of an independent school education is worth their financial investment.

Since I became Head of School at KUA in 2003, our boarding and day tuitions have almost doubled. Looking back, it’s difficult not to feel somewhat responsible for the “out of control” tuition. The question remains, out of whose control? What is the source of the pressure that leads us to continue to increase prices at our own peril? Are we doing this to ourselves?

As leaders, we spend precious resources to raise funds to support innovation and growth. Excellence is expensive. We continue to borrow and spend thousands, if not millions of dollars on facilities, programs, and debt service. Direct “people expenses”, which must include fair and competitive staff compensation and financial aid, are primary responsibilities to our constituents. While educational change is essential to remain relevant, what can stop, or at least slow the price spiral?

Over the next five years, Kimball Union will be making a comprehensive review of our revenue and expense model, and our faculty’s time and task requirements. As one trustee whispered to me in a planning meeting, “We need to size to quality.” We will be looking at our core academic, social, and co-curricular functions, as well as our major cost centers, to determine how we can stave off increases that have already exceeded what many people can or are willing to afford.

Parents, families, and most importantly, teachers will do all they can to make it possible for students to thrive. We all believe our enrollment plans are effective at ensuring that students we matriculate have the capacity to succeed in our schools. As independent school teachers and leaders, we are also confident that the enduring value of our independent education is not measured by the financial return on investment; however, today even those who agree with us are questioning our educational value based on cost.

In so many ways, these remain exciting times for independent school leaders, and educators. As evidenced by many of the topics at independent school conferences, ISANNE schools, and boarding schools in particular, are doing original, innovative work in curriculum and pedagogy. We are working together to be of the greatest service to our students and are doing all we can to make our schools’ education available to students from varied socioeconomic backgrounds. We are thriving learning communities where our families believe what we believe, and share values of independence and universal goals for our children. Surely our nation and world need our graduates to contribute to the greater good. The biggest challenge we are face 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.