Is COVID-19 an Existential Threat for the Independent School Sector?

Is the end of private, independent education at hand? Will the COVID-19 pandemic bring us to the proverbial tipping point where large numbers of parents look at their invoice for another year of tuition and say, “no more?” Robert Farrington, writing in Forbes, thinks so and builds a case by arguing that tuitions are already higher than most average families can afford, remote learning is likely to continue in some form for months if not years, and parents whose children are already in independent schools will leave while those thinking of enrolling will stay away, especially in the younger grades.

To be sure, we have heard before that the end of independent schools is imminent, and heads and board members have fretted for years about the uncontainable rise in tuition. What makes the threat seem especially proximate this time around is the uniqueness of the pandemic and the almost total uncertainty about what comes next. Parents may well find alternatives to making a major purchase amid such uncertainty.

A picture of how COVID may play out in forcing schools out of business comes from a perusal of the Cato Institute’s tracking of such closures. As of July 4, Cato reports 75 permanent closures, with all but 14 coming from Roman Catholic schools. But, as recently as May 29, the tracker listed only one school as “independent.” Today there are seven.

Other than the large share of Catholic schools on the list, little can be concluded from an eyeball analysis of the other descriptive data. Some are more than 100 years old and one school dates to 1743. Most are small—very small in some cases—but others had 300+ students at the end. We can safely conclude that COVID-19 caused each to run out of enough runway to get back into the air as a going concern.

We believe the pandemic will have a long tail aftermath, even if a vaccine is found soon or if an effective treatment emerges from the ongoing research. A head asked us last week whether COVID would be the final nail in the coffin for some schools already on the ropes. The longer the current situation goes on, the more likely it is to be, in Cato’s words, “a huge nail driven by a jackhammer.”

Business and leadership, Governance, Headship, Strategy  |  permalink

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