Private Schools Advertise in 'Buyer's Market'

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There are those in private education who will call them "heretics," say private-school educators across the country who are gearing up for advertising campaigns this spring.

But they expect the benefits of their promotional strategy to far outweigh any concerns about the "appropriateness" of advertising.

"The saying is that there are those who should not advertise--those who are ethical, those who are religious, and those in education," said Randall Storms, headmaster of the Wichita Collegiate School in Kansas. "And I think there is still some medieval thought along that line today."

But in spite of that resistance, private-school administrators increasingly are looking to advertising as a means of solving some of the problems facing private education today, said Joel S. Strangis, director of admissions and development at the Sayre School in Lexington, Ky., and the chief advocate and developer of the school's promotional campaign.

Sessions on advertising offered by the National Association of Independent Schools at its last two annual conferences have been "packed," said Mr. Strangis, who conducted the advertising workshop at the nais conference this spring. The interest in promotional advertising is increasing because "it works," the development director said. A primary goal of advertising campaigns, say educators who use the media, is to recruit students to their schools--and many of the officials report "remarkable" success.

At the Sayre School, for example, applications are up almost 20 percent this year, Mr. Strangis said, and since its advertisements appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader two years ago, the number of new students enrolled has risen significantly--from 100 in 1981 to 162 last fall.

The school currently enrolls 575 students in its coeducational day-school program, and Mr. Strangis said officials expect to fill all of the 600 available seats in the school this coming fall.

David D. Wilson, headmaster of the Long Trail School in Dorset, Vt., also reported "exceedingly positive" results from an advertising series that appeared last spring in one of the rural community's weekly newspapers.

"From our point of view, the reaction was overwhelming," he said. ''We couldn't begin to handle the del-uge of applications."

The series was designed to encourage parents in the area to "seek us out," Mr. Wilson said, adding that their goal was to create a more diverse pool of applicants for the 31-student school, which includes grades 7-12.

The series was so successful that a modified version is appearing in the newspaper again this month, the time of year when parents are most likely to consider educational options for their children, Mr. Wilson said.

'Buyers' Market'

The Wichita Collegiate School has advertised its programs since it opened 21 years ago, according to Mr. Storms, but recently school officials have instituted a more aggressive media campaign to keep up with ''changing demographics," he said.

"We're in a buyers' market," Mr. Storms explained, "and with the declining school-age population, private institutions must be vigorous about marketing their services and products."

Advertisements for the school have been heard on radio stations and seen on Wichita television stations and in local newspapers and magazines. "We use a variety of media, like any firm that wants to keep its name in front of the public. We're trying to maintain our market share," he said.

Building an Image

In addition to recruiting students, many school leaders turn to advertising as a way of improving the image of their schools.

At St. John's Preparatory School in Collegeville, Minn., school officials initiated an advertising campaign in order to recruit students but continued the program to "clarify" the school's image.

"One of our advertising problems was that people had an incorrect image of the school," said Robert J. Dinndorf, director of development.

The advertisements placed in local and national media were designed to communicate the many changes that had occurred in the school's program since it opened in 1857.

Up until the mid-1960's, the school operated as a preparatory school primarily for young men considering the priesthood. Today, the school has both day students and boarding students, provides a college-preparatory curriculum, and is coeducational.

"So people had this all mixed up in their minds," Mr. Dinndorf said, adding that he believes the advertising helped make people more aware of the programs the school had to offer. "I think advertising is what the public is attuned to; they are used to getting information there," he said.

Public Service

Both Mr. Strangis and Mr. Wilson said there is also a public-service component to their advertising.

"We in independent schools have a statement to make," Mr. Strangis said. "There is a real concern about education in this country and I think we should be making some statements about what education means. Mobil Oil advertises about what they believe and we ought to advertise about what we believe."

The advertisements for the Sayre School do not take a "hard-sell" approach, said Mr. Strangis, who writes most of the copy, but present questions parents often ask school personnel, such as "Should I buy my child a home computer?" He recruits various faculty members to answer the questions, and the questions and answers appear in the ad.

The Long Trail School also does "issue" advertising, said Mr. Wilson. The 10-part series currently in the local paper will address everything from student/teacher ratios to the importance of homework.

"We took issues relevant to the school and the community," he said.

Varied Approaches

Private-school educators who advertise generally agree on the purpose of their media campaigns, but their approach to advertising is as different as their schools.

The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., has been advertising for more than 50 years, said Harry deMontmollin, headmaster of the boarding school. But in 1976, stagnating enrollment led the school to a different approach to its public-relations and promotion campaign.

Rather than using an outside agency to develop its advertising strategies and produce brochures and other promotional materials, the school hired a professional marketing staff and increased its promotion budget to $200,000, Mr. deMontmollin said.

Today, the school is advertised frequently in local newspapers, in the printed programs for major sports events, in the programs for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, and in a business magazine in the state called Florida Trend.

"I felt [the school] would not survive if it did not sell itself to the public," the headmaster said.

Educators must provide information to consumers about the services that are available, particularly in the "Sun Belt" where populations are increasing rapidly, Mr. deMontmollin added.

On-Campus Resources

Instead of hiring outside professionals for help, some schools simply develop the resources at hand.

Mr. Strangis uses the school's art department for some of the graphics in his ads, and both the Sayre School and St. John's Preparatory School began their promotional campaigns with the assistance of board members who had businesses in public relations.

Mr. Strangis and Mr. Dinndorf also recommend drawing on the resources of parents whose children attend the schools. The Sayre school has set up a network of parents who make immediate contact with families who express interest in the school. Follow-up is a key component of the school's promotional campaign, Mr. Strangis said.

Another major difference in programs is the type of media selected for the placement of advertisements.

School officials at the Sayre school found that parents listened to such a wide range of radio stations that it was not cost effective to advertise on radio. Thus, the school's advertisements appear almost exclusively in the Lexington morning paper.

According to Mr. Dinndorf, St. John's Preparatory School is advertised primarily in publications in Minnesota, but officials are considering national advertising in Time magazine.

The school also is advertised in a number of guidebooks to private education, such as Peterson's Guides to Independent Schools and The Handbook of Private Schools.

Cost Factors

And as approaches and types of media vary, so do the costs; the difference between the promotion budget at the Bolles School and Mr. Wilson's program in Vermont is about $199,500.

Mr. Wilson writes all of the copy for the school's advertisements, and the only real cost of the promotional campaign is the $500 required to run the ads in the area's weekly newspaper.

The advertising program of the Wichita Collegiate School falls somewhere in between, said Mr. Storms. The school spends about $10,000 on advertising annually, a figure Mr. Storms said he expects will increase.

"The cost of advertising has inflated like the cost of everything else and you have to spend that much more," he explained.

Answering the Critics

The expense and the "stigma" attached to advertising are issues that inevitably come up when school administrators consider promotional campaigns using advertising, several educators said.

There was a concern among faculty members at the Bolles School that the school was going the way of "Veg-O-Matic," said Mr. deMontmollin, referring to the national television advertising of Ronco Teleproducts Inc.

But Mr. deMontmollin said he made certain that would not happen by keeping a "tight rein" on the advertisements produced by outside agencies and, finally, by setting up the school's own promotions department.

"We are selling professional services," he said "and should conduct ourselves in a professional manner."

"I've heard arguments that schools shouldn't advertise because it's crass or because it makes them look desperate for students and that education should be above that kind of thing," added Mr. Dinndorf, "but on the other hand, it is a valuable tool and we should use every means at our disposal."

Vol. 03, Issue 33

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