The Next Normal: How K–12 Independent Schools Can Survive and Thrive in a New Landscape

You have a lot to be proud of.

As schools continue to face the many challenges brought on by COVID-19, everyone is doing exceptional work finding new and creative ways to innovate their programs, tools, communications, and so much more.

McKinsey & Company recently produced a groundbreaking report, How Should US Higher Education Plan for an Uncertain Future?, that categorizes our uncertain COVID-19 future into three major scenarios:

  1. Rapid and effective control: virus contained
  2. Effective response but (regional) virus resurgence: virus recurrence
  3. Broad failure of public health interventions: pandemic escalation

The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) took inspiration from their work and developed, The Next Normal: How K–12 Independent Schools Can Survive and Thrive in a New Landscape, to help guide you through the same three scenarios.

Our report includes implications for:

We hope this report provides guidance and inspiration for your school to prepare for the future.

COVID-19 Has Changed Everything — An Introduction from Heather Hoerle

Dear colleagues,

I’m perplexed by conversations that are NOT happening inside the independent school community. While I’ve heard the “new normal” mentioned by school leaders, I’d like to make a case for a different term for these times, one that suggests ongoing adaptation in the face of dramatic change. I first encountered the term “Next Normal” in McKinsey & Company’s Beyond Coronavirus report. The term invites leaders to conceive of a near future with few markers of normality. Indeed, the authors suggest that most businesses won’t return to normal, or even a “new normal” as we did after the economic downturn of 2008. Instead, the authors make the case that leaders must prepare for unprecedented, ongoing change brought on by this pandemic, which has destabilized our global economy and will continue to have ripple effects for years to come.

In her 2018 book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin describes our future society — what we’d now call our “Next Normal” — as something more like that of war times than economic recessions. In the book, she put a spotlight on leaders, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who united this country during the Great Depression and the World Wars and built alliances to shape long term success. Roosevelt was both forthright and empathetic to the citizens of our country — offering a united rallying cry to give up certain comforts and to work together to fight a shared enemy. These messages built resilience in citizens and an understanding that the pathway to success would require sacrifice and hard work.

So how do these lessons translate to independent school leaders?

It seems clear that we must plan for multiple scenarios (near term, next year, and several years from now) simultaneously. National organizations like EMA can offer insights (like this special report), but it will be up to you individually to uncover the right answers to your school’s unique challenges and explain your “Next Normal” to stakeholders so that your institution will have support within any number of operational modes. From EMA’s vantage point, it’s clear that those school leaders who build a rallying cry to come together and who are committed to agile, creative solutions for their future operations will be the winners in the wider industry. Keep in mind, some solutions may require new alliances and connections; we look forward to helping you uncover new ideas on pricing, messaging, and educational programs as the independent school community moves from short term action to longer term innovation.

Our team at EMA has produced this special report to help build a framework for conversation on key perplexing business issues inside of the Next Normal phase, with the knowledge that you may be asked to change your thinking again and again and again, as the lessons from this pandemic are uncovered. Watch for a second special report this summer — this time it will be a joint report entitled Toward Enrollment and Financial Sustainability: Strategies for a Disrupted Landscape with our partner the National Business Officers Association (NBOA).

Tech pioneer and innovator Bill Gates offered some guidance in his blog post on April 23, 2020. He agrees with Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “This is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side.” He further writes “World War II was the defining moment of my parents’ generation. Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic — the first in a century — will define this era. But there is one big difference between a world war and a pandemic: All of humanity can work together to learn about the disease and develop the capacity to fight it. With the right tools in hand, and smart implementation, we will eventually be able to declare an end to this pandemic — and turn our attention to how to prevent and contain the next one.”2

Here’s to our ongoing conversation and many shared innovations that will be brought to independent education due to COVID-19. These times call for new connections and rethinking what independence means in the midst of this global challenge. While it is natural to psychologically double down and move inward to fix issues, some of the best ideas I’ve heard to date involve multiple organizations working together to deliver something better than any single contributor had before this time. Let’s commit to being #StrongerByAssociation.

Here’s to our shared success!

Executive Director and CEO The Enrollment Management Association

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