October 12, 2022
By Nikki Butts and Nishant Mehta, Mehta Cognition
When consulting with heads, boards, and leadership teams at independent schools of all sizes, configurations, and geographic locations, we are often asked to advise on critical strategic questions that can have long-lasting implications.
Should your school add a new section or build a new building to keep up with enrollment demand? Why is your school losing right-match families to competitor schools – and what should you do about it? Is rising financial aid spending an indication that it’s time for a tuition reset at your school?
Following a rigorous, research-based process rooted in a school’s authentic culture, every school can greatly increase its chances of solving complex challenges, setting and achieving measurable goals, and positioning the school to be successful and sustainable even during uncertain times.
The Four D Process
Step 1: Distill What existing information can be gathered, synthesized, and analyzed?
Schools are often great at collecting data, but sometimes struggle to clean, analyze, or derive meaningful and actionable insights from data. Depending on the specific question a school is trying to answer, this step might involve reviewing your school’s historical enrollment, financial aid, and tuition data to learn more about the relationship between enrollment demand and affordability at your school. It can also mean gathering existing demographic data about your market or relevant industry benchmarks by using readily available tools. What’s important to remember is that when your school is trying to tackle a challenging question or even seize a critical opportunity, the best way to increase your chances of success is to start by making sense of the data and information your school already has at its disposal.
Step 2: Discover What new information is needed?
Step two is about taking everything you’ve learned in step one and filling in any gaps by getting the additional, specific information your school still needs to be able to make an informed decision. Often, this step involves conducting focused, primary research such as surveys, interviews, and/or focus groups. For example, this step might include conducting enrollment funnel surveys to better understand strengths and opportunities at each stage of the admission cycle or a tuition elasticity study to uncover the price threshold at which your school becomes more or less desirable to prospective parents. It’s vital that the research conducted in this step be customized for your specific school so that the question(s) or problem(s) you’re trying to address and the solution(s) you ultimately consider are authentic to your school’s unique culture.
Step 3: Deliberate What is possible and optimal for your school moving forward?
This step is often about brainstorming and/or creating a range of research-based scenarios that help your school consider not only what is possible for your specific school and market, but also, what is optimal. For example, a wide range of enrollment size and tuition configurations are possible for any school; this step may be about finding your school’s optimal enrollment size and price sweet spot. Remember that effective deliberation is an act of collective intelligence; collaborating with others, seeking a diversity of views, and leveraging expertise from multiple domains are critical to the success of this step.
Step 4: Decide How will progress and success be defined and achieved by your school?
If you’ve followed the first three steps carefully, it’s now time to make an actual decision. One of many benefits to this process is that it minimizes “analysis paralysis” and false optimism by empowering school leaders to make fact-based decisions with speed and confidence. In fact, any decisions made in this final step should end up feeling like natural next steps rather than large, overwhelming decisions. After all, by the time you embark on step four, there should already be alignment on the question(s) or problem(s) your school is trying to address, custom data and research gathered and conducted to inform the clearly identified key considerations, and buy-in on why a certain option or scenario is optimal as well as a sense of accountability among the leaders at your school who need to be able to own and implement the decision(s) moving forward.
Want to hone your own superpower of process and help your school make stronger strategic decisions? Join SAIS and Mehta Cognition for a Trustee Education Series webinar on Tuesday, November 1st at 5:00pm EST to learn how to apply this step-by-step process to one of the most frequently asked questions from school leaders this time of year: How can your school set tuition in a way that enhances your school’s perceived value in the market and competitively positions your school for both short-term success and long-term sustainability?
Nikki is an expert strategist, researcher, and analyst with a proven track record of helping schools reach their strategic goals and enrollment potential by asking the right questions, conducting research and analysis, and turning insights into results-oriented actions. Prior to joining Mehta Cognition, Nikki served as assistant head of school for advancement at The Children’s School in Atlanta. Nikki led strategic priorities with the board to optimize the school’s enrollment, market positioning, and pricing strategy. As the former director of admission at Hillbrook School in Silicon Valley, she led and achieved the school’s strategic plan to increase enrollment, with targeted growth in the middle school.
Nishant has worked in or consulted for K-12 schools, non-profits, and companies of all types on issues of leadership, culture, strategy and change management, and equity and justice. After seven years as head of The Children’s School in Atlanta, Nishant founded Mehta Cognition as a leadership and management consultancy to better serve our educational and non-profit leaders and boards on their journey of innovation, inclusion, and strategic transformation. Nishant has served on several local, regional, and national boards, including the board of directors of NAIS, NBOA, and Asheville School. He is recognized for his passionate leadership and vision in improving educational access and centering our attention and intention on breaking down silos in our schools.
Mehta Cognition Mehta Cognition isn’t just our name – it’s how we think. At its core, metacognition is thinking about thinking. Metacognitive strategies such as planning, tracking, and analyzing have been shown to improve student learning – and we apply those sample principles to help school leaders, boards and teams tackle complex problems and achieve desired outcomes.