COVID-19 and Boarding Schools
Chris Bartlett, Director of Enrollment at Proctor Academy, recently spoke to me about certain issues that are priorities for schools across the country and in particular those in Northern New England. Mainly, he shared with me a scenario for opening up campus in the fall and implications for boarding schools should their campuses remain closed. Full disclosure, Chris and I attended Proctor Academy together during our most formative years and have remained friends ever since.
As a new reality sets in and schools grapple with how to reposition themselves in this era of COVID-19, it is refreshing to know that there is a fair amount of sharing going on. Schools are bypassing collusion and, rather, are openly discussing best practices and standards of care with each other. Atleast that is the case with the Independent School Association of Northern New England, a group of sixty day, boarding, middle and upper independent schools. They do have the best interest of their students in mind and want to keep them safe. At the same time, schools are businesses and are very aware of the realities they would face should their campuses remain closed in the fall. Therefore, they are banding together to establish a consistent and cohesive process incase they are able to open up their campuses. Banding together ensures that the decisions they make have been thoroughly vetted and better protects them from a litigious system with punitive repercussions in the unfortunate event a student is exposed to the virus.
This spring, boarding schools across the country reacted swiftly to the threat of COVID-19 by securing their campuses and sending their domestic students safely home. They also provided shelter for many of their international students who were caught off guard by travel restrictions. Anticipating that campuses would remain closed for the foreseeable future, all schools quickly turned their attention to implementing "Distance Learning". Students have continued their scholastic work from home and, while adjusting to distance learning has its challenges, the results have been more favorable than expected. However, the financial implications of closing their campuses have been challenging.
Schools have had to reimburse their boarding families. As of yet, Proctor has done extremely well by them. Due to its campus being shut this spring, the school has reimbursed its boarding families 80% of the room and board fee. One would ask why not 100% which is a legitimate statement. Campus is closed, students aren’t eating in the cafeteria and sleeping in beds. Their energy consumption and carbon footprints have all but disappeared. There are many factors that come into play but the main one is pretty straight forward. The fiscal year at a school begins and ends in July.
By the time spring rolls around, schools have depleted a significant portion of their operating budgets. The clear answer is that they just don’t have the money and, if they do, they have foreseeable expenses that have been budgeted for. Shifting money around would be very difficult. For instance, salaries and benefits at a majority of schools represent 80% of the overall operating budget. Teachers need to be paid as they continue to teach. They have also been given the additional responsibility of adjusting their lessons so that they can be delivered on-line which they are not being compensated for. There are unforeseeable expenses that are often budgeted in. No doubt, that line item came into good use. However a portion of that 80% refund did come from Proctor’s innate desire to do right by its families.
Opening up in the Fall
It is still very unclear what will happen next fall when boarding schools traditionally begin their academic year. They are planning for different scenarios and Proctor is no exception. If campus reopens, one very probable option is to require students to arrive early, two weeks in advance. They will be tested for COVID-19 and will be quarantined for that duration. Because quarantine requires students to essentially live idly for two weeks, the school would look to minimize the number of times they leave campus and return during the course of the year. Therefore, Proctor is prepared to alter its academic calendar.
First and foremost, the trimester model would be shelved. The biggest adjustment would be that students departing for Thanksgiving break would not return until the end of the holiday season in January. This decision was made to minimize the times students would have to return to campus and go back into a two week quarantine. Also, because that period is only three weeks long, quarantining students for two of those weeks would not make much sense. As a result, students would remain at home and continue their scholastic work as distance learners in a similar fashion to what they have been doing this spring.
Instead of its traditional trimester calendar, the school could implement a module or block type system. On the surface, the block plan allows students to take fewer subjects. They split their course load by taking no more than two or three at a time. The classes would meet for longer periods of time which would limit the number of transition periods when students find their way to their next classes. Beneath the surface, the block plan provides for an additional health benefit.
According to Edward Maloney and Joshua Kim of Inside Higher Ed, “A Block Plan may prove especially beneficial to students in a time of added stress, allowing them to narrow their focus to concentrate on succeeding in fewer courses.” As reported to me by Chris, stress reduction is a primary concern for schools as they have seen a rise in anxiety in their students due to being on-line for a great portion of the day. This shift, also referred to as disruptive learning which connotes an uneasy transition, is foreign to them and many students just need that personal attention and on site experience to learn more efficiently.
Rotating students in and out
While the block plan would help limit student exposure, it would not address class size. Often times, classrooms run at capacity, especially in subjects like English and History. Students could be separated into smaller groups and rotate in and out of classrooms on a weekly basis. Half the class would be present while the other would be on-line in their dorm rooms.
Subjects more suited to Distance Learning
In times like these, the Block Plan would also help address the uncertainties that lie ahead. If there are lessons to be learned from this spring experience, it is that some subjects are more suited to distance learning than others. For instance, more hands on and experiential subjects such as lab sciences and the arts do not translate as fluidly to distance learning. Although not without some bumps, mathematics, language arts and social studies do. Consequently, those subjects that are more akin to hands-on learning would be scheduled in the fall while subjects such as English Literature and US History would begin after Thanksgiving break when the students are at home. This version of the academic year would remain in place in the event that COVID-19 returned and the school needed to revert back to distance learning for the remainder of the academic year.
On-line in the fall
If schools are unable to welcome students on to their campus in the fall, there are some very bleak realities that they will need to address. Primarily, these relate to budgets and admission.
Most boarding schools also have a day population. As a result, they charge two separate fees, tuition and tuition/room and board. Really, there is the day student fee and the boarding student fee. The fees fluctuate from school to school depending on location and also on how tuition dependent the schools are. In Proctor’s case, day student tuition is about $38,000 per year which is what the market will bear. There is one big misnomer however. In order to attract day students, boarding schools need to charge day school tuition rates. The problem is, a day student at a boarding school costs more than one at a day school. Added room and board fees take account of that. The $38,000 Proctor charges is not enough and even with a closed campus, it costs more for a school like Proctor to educate its students than a day school.
The line items on boarding school operating budgets differ from those of day schools. Boarding schools have additional expenses. They have a much larger and more complex physical plan and residential life. They also employ more faculty and staff. Boarding Schools are residential communities that operate 24 hours a day. These expenses are factored into the boarding fee. But closing campus does not erase all of them. Buildings and grounds need to be maintained. There are faculty and staff salaries and benefits which include housing as well.
In addition, boarding students often need more support than their day school counterparts. Many of them have chosen boarding school because it offers something that they are not able to access at home. Simply put, boarding students do not become day students because they no longer live on campus. Similarly, boarding and day schools don’t become equal because they are essentially delivering the same product. Yet to charge boarding students more would be very difficult to justify, especially when their education is on-line.
Most independent schools have an endowment of some sort. In theory, the endowment is meant to offset some of the cost of running a school. Each year, the interest, or up to 5% can be added to the operating budget. However, the reality is that very few schools are able to rely on their endowment for any significant budgetary relief.
Drawing from Endowment
According to the National Association of Independent Schools, “at any point in time, the investment return on the school's endowment funds, whether unrestricted or restricted to specific operating functions, covers a certain percentage of the operating budget. Thus, a school with a $20 million operating budget and a $30 million endowment utilizing a 4.5 percent payout rate includes $1,350,000 of endowment investment return in the revenue stream of its operating budget. That level of endowment investment return represents 6.75 percent of the budget.”
Each year, the Board of Trustees decides how much of the endowment, not exceeding 5%, will be used to offset costs. For example, Proctor Academy’s endowment is $24 million. Its operating budget is estimated at $18 million. Using these figures, that would mean that Proctor’s endowment should draw $1.8 million a year toward its operating budget. If the board decides to draw 5% of the endowment, that would generate $1.2 million. At 4.5%, which is the recommended payout, the endowment would generate $1.08 million. That is a shortfall of about $800,000. The point is not to show the fragility of Proctor‘s overall financial position. The school is actually considered to be quite healthy. However, while its endowment does provide some relief, the school is very much tuition driven and any disruption in tuition revenues can be extremely problematic.
Chris quoted Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton Christiansen, when addressing the implications of having a closed campus in the fall as they relate to Admissions. According to Professor Christiansen's research entitled The Theory of Jobs to be Done, families expect independent schools to provide certain benefits for their children. The first is an environment where their child can experience success academically and emotionally. Second is to provide their children with unique and rich experiences. A third is to offer rigorous academic programs complemented by competitive athletics. An on-line education negates all students from experiencing any of these wish list items.
Chris’s points to his main concern which relates to yield and, to a lesser extent, attrition. Yield is the percentage of prospective admitted students who attend. Attrition refers to the number of students who choose not to re-enroll. Although Chris does anticipate some attrition, he points to the strong bond students have developed with the school that would entice them to return. The friendship with other students and faculty combined with the routines that have been established would be the primary reasons for a student to re-enrol regardless of whether campus was open or not.
However, an admitted new student does not have any of those connections to the school. The lack of connections combined with an expensive on-line education could very likely deter many of those families from enrolling. As a result, Chris stressed the importance of virtual re-visit days in managing the yield. The quality of the virtual experience for the families will determine how many of them will choose to attend. Also, the schools with large applicant pools are admitting more students to counter the probability of a lower yield.
As for attrition, it is fundamentally important for the school to communicate with its current families. Chris pointed to the efforts made to ensure that the families and students continue to feel a part of the community. As an example, Proctor has been running Morning Meetings twice a week. Morning Meeting is an experience that I fondly remember from my time at Proctor. It is an opportunity for the entire community to gather, share stories and make announcements. These meetings are run by student leaders. I always looked forward to Morning Meeting as a student. It was a nice break in the day. So many of the skits and stories performed and shared by both students and faculty continue to be sketched into my memory banks.
In addition to Morning Meeting, Proctor has implemented a kind of speaker series. Each week, students and their families are invited to log in and participate in discussions relating to matters affecting the community at-large. These weekly meetings have addressed issues such as the stress and anxiety students are experiencing being at home and learning on-line. College Counseling has also been hosting virtual meetings with college representatives for Juniors and Seniors.
Schools Most Susceptible
Any school that is primarily tuition driven is at risk. That translates to an overwhelming number of schools. However, according to Chris, those who are most vulnerable are those who place an emphasis on recruiting international students and/or athletes.
In 2018, NAIS published an article entitled International Students- You are Welcome Here! on international students and some of the concerns they have with attending independent schools in the United States. According to the study, the top three are linked to the current US presidential administration 68%, followed by travel restrictions 54% and personal safety 52%. These are pre COVID-19 figures.
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 will dramatically increase those percentages. As a result, schools whose international student populations are 20% or more of their entire student body could see a decline in those applications. Furthermore, those schools rely heavily on international students to make up for their diminishing domestic applicant pool. They cannot simply fill in the void by admitting more domestic students. They don’t exist. Also, while many domestic families receive some sort of financial aid, international families do not. As a matter of fact, many of those families are charged an additional fee for academic support and English as a Second Language classes. Many schools rely on their international population to meet their budgetary needs. Without them, they increasingly become more financially vulnerable.
Chris also points to the reliance many boarding schools have on recruiting athletes. Most schools are susceptible to that. Proctor is no exception, especially in sports such as alpine skiing and, to a lesser extent, hockey. Athletic programs at boarding schools can be extremely competitive. They draw elite athletes because they have housing so they can recruit from many parts of the world. Also, as stated by Professor Christianson, they can provide a rigorous academic program complemented by competitive athletics. Many independent day and public schools, with some exceptions, lose their best talent to boarding schools. A local elite athlete will want to play in a more competitive league.
International athletes choose to attend boarding schools because the concept of being a student athlete in their respective countries is far less developed. For instance, hockey players from Canada who value a rigorous education attend boarding schools because their own system of Junior hockey does not provide that academic piece for them.
Closing campuses and substituting in distance or on-line learning removes the incentive for any these athletes to enroll in boarding schools. Domestic day student athletes, instead, will remain at their current school and play on an elite club team. Conversely, international student athletes will remain in their own system of athletics and on-line education at a significantly reduced cost.
So what are some steps schools can take to minimize the losses they have accrued and will most likely continue to experience as the ripple effects linger? Schools like Proctor may need to suspend their off campus programs. They may also have to reduce the student body, retire some teachers and increase faculty to student ratios. They may also need to dispense of some of the administrative layers. All these changes really point to becoming more lean and efficient as a community.
Chris mentioned another interesting proposed adjustment. Being a school that runs off campus programs throughout the year, many students enroll in “make-up” courses when they return. They cover subjects that could not be taught to them during their time off campus. A fair amount of resources are allocated to providing these additional courses, the most obvious being hiring more faculty. Chris believes that there is a place for on-line or distance education in the future. Instead of having these “make-up” courses, students participating in off-campus programs could log in and virtually join on campus classes. Now that is progressive thinking and a great example of how difficult times often generate some well timed and needed innovation.
There is no question that if campuses remain closed this fall, some schools will simply have to shut down. The combination of having to reduce tuition and losing families alone could have a disastrous effect on many of the more vulnerable schools. This is a Darwinian world. Every so often, a wind blows through and wipes out the lower hanging fruits. However, boarding schools have shown extreme resilience in the past.
There have been economic downturns and changing demographics that have forced them to make some adjustments and implement change. I now know that the 1980s were not especially good times for boarding schools. As a student at Proctor at the time, I was certainly not aware of that, which really comes to show how important a role community plays in the success of a school. I had no point of reference. I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know. However, I later realized that there were certain programs and features of the school that had been discontinued. The boat building program is a prime example. Apparently, it took a hiatus while I was there. It has since returned. Another distinguishable feature that went missing during the 80s is the ski lodge. The structure was there but was empty, no doubt another victim of budget cuts. Schools have a way of adapting. What it all boils down to is the community and whether the quality of the overall experience outweighs programs and facilities. With that in mind, regardless of what happens in the fall, Proctor Academy and schools like it should do just fine.
Christopher Bartlett, Director of Enrollment, Proctor Academy- https://www.proctoracademy.org/
Independent School Association of Northern New England- https://www.isanne.org/
www.nais.org- Author: Donna Orem, International Students- You are Welcome Here!- September 17th, 2018 - https://www.nais.org/learn/independent-ideas/september-2018/international-students-you-are-welcome-here/
Christiansen Institute- Author-: Professor Clayton, The Theory of Jobs to be Done- https://www.christenseninstitute.org/jobs-to-be-done/Theory
www.nais.org · Author: Sorrel R. Paskin is the associate head at Riverdale Country School in Bronx, New York. · This article originally appeared in Independent School Magazine, Spring 2000. · Modified by NAIS, January, 2002. · © 2002, National Association of Independent Schools.