Demographic Trends, Economy Spur Private Schools To Expand Marketing
By Mark Walsh
Readers of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal recently were confronted with prominently placed advertisements bearing a cryptic headline: "Why the St. Grottlesex education you enjoyed might not be the best idea for your daughter."
The ads, which caused a mild stir among America's leading independent schools, also reflected an important new trend in the way such schools are presenting themselves to the public.
Placed by the Emma Willard School, a 17 7-year-old boarding and day school for girls in Troy, N.Y., the ads were promoting research indicating that young women perform better and express greater confidence in a single-sex setting.
"St. Grottlesex," of course, is imaginary, an amalgam of top, formerly all-boys preparatory schools in New England that became coeducational in the 1960's and 70's. Such schools presumably were the alma maters of the affluent business executives who were the targets of the ads, which appeared on the arts page of the Journal and the opinion page of the Times.
"The coed schools have not been happy," said Robin Robertson, principal of the Emma Willard School. "They perceived the St. Grottlesex headline as a pot shot at them."
Although the school has taken a break from the high-profile ads for now, they spotlight a growing effort by independent schools to expand marketing efforts beyond the traditional glossy brochure.
More schools are promoting themselves by placing paid advertising in local newspapers and regional and national magazines, buying time on radio, and sponsoring television shows, according to private-school educators.
While private-school advertising is not by any means a new thing, the current emphasis represents a marked change from the ethos of the past, say observers.
Independent day and boarding schools "have scoffed at advertising for years," said Stewart Dunlop, admissions director of Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. "They have been reasonably elitist bastions, and they have looked at marketing as something beneath the schools."
Now, however, the slow economy and demographic trends that have reduced the ranks of potential applicants in the upper grades are forcing schools to be more aggressive in attracting students.
Brewster currently is participating in an effort of a kind that is quickly gaining favor among private-school administrators: collaborative marketing by schools grouped by region or common characteristic.
Approximately 40 schools belonging to Independent Schools of Northern New England, a regional association comprised of institutions in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, hired a marketing company to develop ads designed to pique interest among parents about privateschool education.
The association has placed ads in The Boston Globe and the regionalized advertising pages of such major magazines as Newsweek and The New Yorker.
"We have met with tremendous success, with over 1,500 requests for information in the first year," Mr. Dunlop said.
A similar effort is under way involving about 60 of the 80 member schools of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, said Peter Tacy, the organization's executive director.
The participating schools all contribute a relatively small amount of money, which then enables the joint campaign to purchase ads in the Hartford Courant, the Connecticut edition of The New York Times, and Connecticut magazine.
"The motive is less marketing than market development," Mr. Tacy said. "The research has shown that a huge segment of the public doesn't know what independent schools are."
Affluent Parents Targeted
City and regional magazines are popular places for private-school ads because their readership demographics often match the independent school's main target market--affluent parents.
The Western Boarding Schools Association, a group of about 30 schools, has used a variety of magazines to place ads offering a directory of its members to interested parents.
The magazines include regional titles within their geographic area, such as Sunset, Alaska A irlines, and Stanford magazines, plus out-of-region magazines such as Texas Monthly and Southern Living, where the schools find a relatively small number of interested parents.
The association has also placed ads in general-interest, upscale magazines such as Smithsonian and Gourmet.
Expanding the focus of advertising can have its pitfalls, however. Such ads sometimes bring inquiries from parents who are not fully aware that the member schools largely serve a successful, collegebound group of students.
"There are a lot of requests that we can't serve," said Sue Nicol, admissions director at the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. "If we get respondents who say, 'His parole officer thinks he needs a boarding school,' then we can refer them" to an appropriate alternative.
Advertising by private schools is not as recent a phenomenon as some make it sound, however. The back pages of The New York Times Maga zine and other Sunday supplements have long contained small ads for a variety of private schools.
In The Catcher in the Rye, the J .D. Salinger classic first published in 1951, for example, the character Holden Caulfield mentions with disdain the ads for his boarding school, the fictional Pencey Prep.
"They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence," Holden complains. "Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place."
Taking to the Airwaves
One strategy that is clearly different, though, is that independent schools are taking to the airwaves to promote themselves.
The Church Farm School in Paoli, Pa., about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, shifted to radio commercials three years ago when inquiries from its newspaper ads declined.
Since the school serves students from broken homes, it had to expand its reach beyond the traditional independent-school market, said Jack Kistler, the admissions director. It has run commercials on radio stations in the Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pa., and New Jersey markets.
"We have tried news stations and other formats, but our most successful [format] is country and western," he said. "That was a surprise to me, but that is where there are more people in the financial range who might apply to our school."
The Emma Willard School, meanwhile, is also making use of public television to spread its message. The school is the sponsor of the local broadcast of the popular new educational game show, "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" and advertises in the program guide to the local public-television station.
In addition to the new students they may bring to the Emma Willard School, Ms. Robertson said the Times and Journal ads shotfid benefit every all-girls independent school.
"We did not see it just as an ad for Emma Willard," she said. "They truly are position statements on the value of single-sex education."