Limits to Nichification?

This news about the closing of Green Mountain College in the American state of Vermont shows that even a well-honed market niche is not always the path to financial viability. Green Mountain built distinctiveness around environmental sustainability to the point of winning nationally acclaim for this niche, yet in the end was unable to translate this into enough paying customers to sustain the school.

Maybe some schools are beyond saving. Maybe we need a way to recognize and respond to this eventuality before things become so dire that students only have a few months notice before closure—a hospice program of sorts for educational institutions.

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Gen Alpha is Here! Are You Ready?

Even as the Millennial generation makes its way into independent school admission offices with their toddlers in tow, marketers tell us that Generation Alpha (their kids) are already a formidable part of buying and selling everything. This article in Ad Age is both instructive and terrifying.

“[A] way to reach Alpha kids—and their parents’ wallets—is to tap into a rising crop of child influencers who have their own Instagram pages and YouTube channels with subscriber counts well into the millions.

“The kingpin is Ryan, a 7-year-old boy from Texas who has been doing online toy reviews since he was a 4-year-old. His YouTube channel, Ryan ToysReview, now approaches 18 million subscribers. Ryan, whose last name is undisclosed to protect his privacy, first began posting reviews, but has since expanded into science experiments and games. Neither Ryan nor his parents returned a request for comment.

“‘The new biggest celebrity to a kid is not Michael Jordan anymore, it’s Ryan ToysReview, [their] favorite YouTuber,” says Julia Moonves, VP of sales and business development at Pocket.watch, a Los Angeles-based startup that partners with young influencers on content and product development.”

Will “child influencers” come to drive school enrollment decisions made by parents? Maybe they already do well outside our awareness.

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Lessons in Survival from Small Colleges

A Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Lawrence Biemiller describes the paths several small, liberal arts colleges are taking to find financial sustainability. The plight of such schools is well-known, but my take-away from the article is that five practices underscore the more successful transformations:

  1. Increasing the speed at which decisions, even about matters such as curriculum, are made; this is true even in domains that require significant faculty input or consent;
  2. Stopping programs, no matter how beloved, that pulled down the bottom line; e.g., no margin means no mission;
  3. Reducing faculty positions, one of the most painful, but ultimately helpful, of the strategies;
  4. Benchmarking private school tuition at the same level as the flagship campus of the state’s public university (this required re-engineering the budget to hit the price point, as illustrated by Oglethorpe University and Sweet Briar College); and
  5. Changing pedagogical approaches to emphasize project-based and experiential learning (remember our post in this space that everything is progressive now).

Also notable is mention of a consortium among Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, Hampshire, and UMass at Amherst (all in Massachusetts) to reduce expenses by shared services.

All of the above are interesting case studies for smaller independent K-12 schools.

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It’s Getting Harder to Break Through the Noise

This coming Sunday is one of the biggest days in the advertising industry. Over the 50+ years that the American football Super Bowl championship has been played, the advertising during the game has achieved legendary status. Companies like Coca Cola, Hyundai, Amazon and others spend tens of millions of U.S. dollars buying ad spots during the game, and major news organizations–some of them global–cover the ads even if they don’t the game. Having at least one (and sometimes several) ads during the Super Bowl has become “table stakes” for major brands.

With a new battery of ads awaiting their first airing on Sunday, word comes that Skittles, the candy brand, is taking a very different approach using an anti-advertising message and the actor Michael C. Hall to attract attention. The messaging is clever precisely because it gets one’s attention, something hard to do amid all the other very well done ads (puppies and Clydesdales have something of the same effect). You can read an Ad Age item about the idea here.

What the Skittles spot shows more than anything is the extreme difficulty of being heard amid all the noise, regardless of the media channel for your messaging. Whether print, digital, email, direct mail (amazingly this still happens!), or outdoor, finding ever more creative and must-watch/listen/read ways of reaching prospective buyers is exactly the subject about which marketing, communications and admissions should obsess.

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The Humble, but Longserving, Master Combination Lock

Forced by my usual gym being closed due to a bursted pipe, I visited one nearby that had agreed to let our members in for the day. While my gym loans keyed locks, the new one did not so I ended up buying one for the first time in years. Guess what? The same Master combination lock style that I used in junior high (more than 45 years ago) is still being made and just as popular as ever with the gym set.

What other product is as unchanged over a similar span of time? One can argue—quite convincingly—that no change is needed as the venerable Master lock does it job both cheaply and well. It provides adequate security to keep one’s valuables safe in a school (or community rec center) locker room. Anything more elaborate or high-tech would be overkill.

School, especially pre-K through grade 12, is almost as unchanged. The modern education quantum of X students with Y teachers in Z classrooms still defines school almost everywhere. The values of X, Y and Z may vary, as they always have, but that formula still drives pedagogy, staffing and budgets around the world. We can ask whether that same quantum still does its job cheaply and well; e.g., thereby making the case that no real substantive change is necessary.

We might even be willing to concede the fact that little about education is cheap these days, but might there be a way to do it better? Especially given that the humble Master lock still serves only the purpose that it did decades ago, while our schools, especially private, independent ones, are fulfilling many more purposes. Dare we wish for a new quantum that is both cheaper and better? And who will be the first to try something new?

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Do We Gain By Delaying the Inevitable?

An item in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the ongoing Sears bankruptcy saga caught my attention. The headline reads, “Sears Staves Off Liquidation; Stores to Remain Open.” The clearers subtext to the article was relief that an icon of American retailing would not be facing an immediate and ignominious demise, despite the fact that Sears has been all but dead for quite a long time.

To me, this begs the question of whether anyone is really well-served by Sears’ zombie status. Creditors are still on the hook, employees may receive a paycheck or two more, but the end seems in sight, and everyone merely delays reckoning with the inevitable as there is exactly zero reason to believe that Sears can once again be a vital and vibrant player in retail. Would we be, on net, better off to just get it over with in a rational and orderly process—sort of like a form of hospice for corporations?

The same question can be asked about any number of private schools, especially those in declining markets where there is a surplus of seats. Painful as it may be, would some schools be better served by liquidating and contributing assets to a like-missioned peer? And what role should associations play in helping broker these difficult conversations within boards?

I get it: no board wants to be the last board, but as with Sears, maybe there could be some value in knowing when to say when.

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