By Dr Stephen Holmes
COVID requires a new lens on school fee setting
In a COVID world and beyond, the international school sector faces unprecedented pressure for strategic approaches in a number of ways to build and sustain market success. One of them will be the process to review, set and monitor appropriate fees.
What could be more important than ensuring that your fees and fee structure strategy reflect market conditions in this new world that the sector faces? It’s a new world where cost sensitivity, a competitive school environment and the choice is still growing, yet market size (pool of possible enrolments) could be shrinking.
In this post, I contend that fee setting in international schools will need to become a more strategic activity and increasingly evidence-based by taking a stronger market lens.
Our experience of more than 20 years of sector consulting tells us that processes to review school fees rarely include any market perspective to set optimal fees.
I would contend that while school fees should be set by school boards, owners, and management with reference to costs and wider school objectives, their market impact must also be considered.
Gone, surely, will be the days where schools can simply say: ”our fees (strategy) is set by being + or - 5% of our competitors and or by looking only at our costs!”
For schools, there is now an urgent need to, and real value in, following a fee strategy development process that includes a market perspective. There is certainly a range of pertinent considerations that, previously, fee-covered schools have largely second-guessed or paid limited attention to. For example, holding robust data on perceptions of your ‘value for money’ or value proposition, the attractiveness of various school services and their potential to leverage your fees, sensitivity (elasticity) of your buyers to fee options, and a closer look at the competitive standing of your fees and education offer against peer schools.
The link between the most appropriate school fees and fee packaging (for example ‘bundling inclusions and exclusions) to enhancing enrolment, retention, competitiveness, and building reputation are surely going to become self-evident.
What we need to know from the ‘market’ to set fees
What do we need to know, that we don’t already know for sure, to have a 360-degree view to determining school fees both for the short and longer-term? From our experience, and depending on the individual school context and stage of the school’s history (e.g. a newly proposed school versus a well-established school versus a school facing new competition), the following can be of vital intelligence to shape fees strategy:
- The sensitivity to fee levels and possible service inclusions and exclusions (e.g. ESL, excursions, buses etc.) for your school.
- Options for innovative and differentiated fees and fee structure.
- Insights into your school’s intrinsic ‘value for money’ and key drivers of perceived value.
- Understand the attractiveness of various fee levels and structures (scenario testing).
- Discover individual services from a school that could warrant higher fees and why.
- Understand the interplay between school fees, reputation and parents' school choice.
- Knowing the power of various marketing messages to enhance the impact of marketing. In particular, what will be the most aligned marketing messages to build a perception of your ‘value for money’?
Steps toward a sustainable solution
In the below, we suggest several steps to provide a robust market picture that can reliably inform school fee setting, structure and strategy. These should be balanced against cost factors.
Step 1: Our school’s offer
This should entail a robust assessment of your fee documentation, and the value proposition being communicated (digitally, print). This requires a school to look objectively at what is being presented to the market and we would recommend that the following be top of mind:
- Is fee information well structured, packaged, communicated?
- Is there a value proposition (message) linked to a compelling school identity to substantiate school fees?
- Does the school articulate a reputation for something of particular value (USP) that would publicly support its fee levels?
Step 2: Fee level sensitivity
It is never easy to broach the subject of fee setting with your own constituent parents! There has rarely been a parent, for example, who would vote for increasing school fees! This is one reason that so little occurs in schools by way of market testing and analysis of fees. We don’t know the right questions to ask and how to do it.
We must find non-intrusive ways to extract answers to some of the key questions that will ultimately allow us to understand the expectations and ‘tipping points’ of parents in relation to your fees. This can be achieved by coming at the issue through questions such as:
- What do parents see as the core value of your school’s offer?
- What do people most demand/expect for higher fees?
- What is not currently in your offer or strongly in the offer, but could be added/strengthened for higher fees?
- Where and how are fees an indicator of the quality of your school?
- What are the personas of your clientele, the extent of fee sensitivity, and expectation at various fee levels (scenario testing)?
Step 3: Competitor fee and proposition analysis
Gaining competitor intelligence on peer school fees and the merit of a supportive education offering (proposition) is surely necessary to gain a relative picture of the appropriateness of your school fees. I predict that in the post COVID era, school choice will become a yet more scrutinised process from parents where options will be explored on a range of factors to ascertain your bottom-line investment value. Key questions we would pose here include:
- What are peer schools’ value proposition(s)/offer and fees and how do they inform your fee competitiveness?
- At what fee would your school be expensive compared to peer schools to not consider buying it? (Too expensive).
- At what fee would your school be a great buy compared to your peer schools? (Good value).
Step 4: Fee options
Depending on the outcome of the above steps, options should be tabled that span:
- Key issues with regard to fee attractiveness and sensitivity?
- How can we build and present more value to your audiences?
- What insights do we have to most inform fee structure to maximise income, enrolment, competitiveness, and reputation?
Dr Stephen Holmes B Ed, MBA, M Ed Admin, PhD (School Marketing and Reputation) is a long-standing member of the CIS Affiliated Consultant Network. Stephen is the Founder and Principal of The 5Rs Partnership (www.5rspartnership.com), in Singapore, a global consultancy specifically for schools and universities in strategy, marketing, and reputation management, established in 2004. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.