During free time in a classroom at a private pre-K-8 lab school in California, a student headed over to the library corner. As he chose a book, the teacher snapped a photograph with her phone and texted it to his mom. The student had been out sick, and the teacher wanted to assure his mom that he was feeling better.
"She added a note to let the mom know he was doing great and back to working on his assignments," says Amada Torres, vice president for studies, insights, and research at the National Association of Independent Schools, who was visiting the lab school. "I thought it was so cool."
Welcome to the world of millennial parent engagement, in which leading independent schools around the globe are modifying their outreach to this busy, technologically savvy generation. These parents expect information that demonstrates the value of their child's educational experience—including updates like the one from the lab school teacher and breakdowns on how their tuition and philanthropic contributions are spent. But data is not the only key to getting parents excited about your school: To cultivate millennials' support and recruit their children, independent institutions need to demonstrate their value, prioritize diversity, and develop meaningful engagement opportunities.
Like parents before them, millennials who send their children to independent schools are drawn to high-quality teachers and an educational experience that nurtures intellectual curiosity, personal growth, and critical thinking. But two profound influences make millennials—the cohort born between 1982 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census—different from previous generations: the rise of public internet access in the early 1990s, when the oldest millennials were children, and the 2007–09 Great Recession, when many were young adults beginning their careers. Despite Australian millionaire Tim Gurner's proclamation that millennials can't afford houses because they fritter away money on avocado toast, they are still recovering from the recession. In 2013, young adults made $10,000 less than young adults did in 1989, while juggling higher student loan debt. Consequently, some independent schools have seen reduced enrollment in their lower grades, an effect that varies by region and institution.
This means schools have to do more to show they are worth the investment. Millennials, who comparison shop more than other generations even when selecting in-store purchases, according to a marketing survey, require research and facts to support their spending choices, particularly when it comes to big investments like their children's education. Millennial parents worldwide are more likely to be skeptical of schools that simultaneously charge high tuition and ask for monetary gifts, especially in countries such as China and Colombia where the culture of giving is relatively new. That puts the onus on schools to address the issue of cost and highlight the importance of philanthropy.
"Millennials care more about the cost and what you're doing than about the institution," Torres says. "Having a good reputation is not enough. We really need to prove to our customer the value that we're providing and what the experience is like."
One way schools can demonstrate their value is by showing how they're preparing students for jobs of the future—jobs that may not yet exist. With technology rapidly changing the employment landscape, Torres says schools need to emphasize that they're teaching skills robots and other technology won't make obsolete: critical thinking, communication, and interpersonal intelligence.
The YK Pao School, an international elementary and secondary school in Shanghai, China, hosts student panels to highlight how it's teaching such abilities. During the panels, held once or twice a year during important school events, four to six students answer audience questions on any topic. Parents ask the students about school and dormitory life, romance, views on video games, relationships with their parents, and how the school has influenced them. The parents are often impressed by the panelists' honest answers.
"The best evidence for a school's quality is its students," says Jennie Gong, YK Pao's director of development. "Seeing the performance of our bright and thoughtful young people makes the parents and donors feel that their contributions are truly worthwhile."
Schools also need to make the case for giving, and Gong suggests a three-point approach: 1) educate parents about advancement using examples from other independent schools; 2) empower parent advocates to speak up and influence their peers; and 3) show tangible results of giving.
YK Pao staff regularly update the school community on the positive effects of giving to the school's annual fund, which paid for a climbing wall, an outdoor lighting system, and virtual reality programs. As a result of the outreach, annual fund participation reached almost 90 percent in the most recent campaign.
At the Francis W. Parker School, a K–12 day school in Illinois, staff meet with parents one-on-one to talk about how the school runs, where its money goes, and the gap between tuition and cost. These meetings once focused on fundraising efforts, but over the past few years, the development office has expanded the discussion—a change that boosted fundraising and increased new parent participation from 74 to 83 percent.
"We talk about our school traditions, important dates, but also how to get involved philanthropically and with their time through volunteer opportunities," says Connie Molzberger, Parker's associate director of development.
Parker staff connect parents with volunteer opportunities that complement their skills, like speaking at an assembly, judging a competition, or serving on a committee in an area of their expertise.
"For the parents, it's our job to give them a culture of philanthropy," Molzberger says. "Education is huge. We need to help them understand why supporting the school is so important on top of tuition."
Another area that millennials care deeply about when evaluating schools? Diversity. Millennials are more diverse than previous generations—more than 44 percent are part of a minority racial or ethnic group—and they expect their children to learn in an environment rich in a variety of cultures.
"There's a greater appreciation for the education that comes from being around people who think differently than you do," Torres says.
The approach to diversity at The Winsor School has been a draw for prospective parents, says Lynn Randall, director of parent relations at the Massachusetts institution. Winsor is a grade 5–12 all-girls day school at which 46 percent of the students self-identify as something other than or in addition to white, non-Hispanic, or Caucasian. The school holds three parent forums a year on what it means to be a diverse community and related topics, including race, class, and religion. One panel on being Muslim American and stereotyping was facilitated by a parent and included a tour of a mosque within walking distance of campus.
"It's really important work, and the school benefits overall," Randall says. "We bring in new families that have heard about our work on diversity and are attracted to Winsor based on that."
Building a thriving, diverse community requires work and awareness that includes handling uncomfortable experiences, such as when parents hear others making insensitive comments about culture, religion, race, or class. To address such situations, the school held a five-hour workshop in September 2017 on how to facilitate difficult conversations around diversity. About 20 parents attended, and a facilitator coached them on how to make everyone feel heard and valued in open-ended, sensitive discussions.
"It was fabulous," Randall says. "The parents loved it. They felt like it was relevant to their everyday life as well as conversations they might have at school."
Independent schools with successful parent engagement offer programming that isn't solely about the institution, the kids, or the parents. Like universities, these schools engage alumni, administer to the needs of the whole individual, involve parents through meaningful activities, and educate them about the value of their investment and giving. Much of this kind of programming emphasizes strong relationships between students, parents, grandparents, and their school communities.
"What I've tried is to think about the person as a whole," says Diana Colmenares Vélez, director of development and community affairs at the Colegio Nueva Granada, a K–12 day school in Bogotá, Colombia, "and how we can create programs that appeal to their professional side and social side. They want to have fun. We help them have fun at school."
To guide CNG's activities, Colmenares Vélez conducts regular email surveys. One revealed that parents love lifestyle events, and in 2016, CNG launched soccer and golf tournaments for parents and alumni with 85 golfers and eight soccer teams of 160 players total. One year later, 120 golfers and 11 soccer teams with 220 players competed. In the forthcoming CNG Culinary Nights series, well-known chefs in the CNG community will teach cooking classes.
One of CNG's most successful events is CNG Ex Talks, a TED Talk–style biannual event that focuses on the school's three pillars: body, mind, and character. In 2016, in what turned out to be the school's most popular talk so far, about 980 attendees listened to the Benedictine monk, teacher, and author David Steindl-Rast discuss the importance of gratitude. In August 2017, cultural educator and author Aziz Abu Sarah spoke to students, parents, and staff about how education transformed his views and moved him to dedicate his life to promoting peace.
After Abu Sarah's talk, one CNG parent commented on Facebook: "I value these unique opportunities for our kids to be exposed to peace-building role models, who will hopefully inspire and motivate them, and us, to step out of our comfort zones, listen to other people's perspectives and build bridges of compassion, kindness, understanding, and peace."
Thinking carefully about who your parents are and what will touch their hearts, minds, and interests doesn't just benefit them—it's good for the school, too, because building that connection makes parents more willing to give.
"When people come to our events, they leave with a sense of happiness and gratitude. It's fun and emotional," Colmenares Vélez says. "We always go the extra mile to speak to the heart of our community."
Compared to previous generations, today's grandparents are more deeply engaged with their grandkids' schools and education, more frequently volunteering on campus, providing tuition support, and picking up their grandchildren from school. There are also more grandparents today: With longer life expectancies, 75 percent of people have at least one living grandparent up until they're 30 years old. And in 2012, 10 percent of the U.S.' 65 million grandparents lived with a grandchild. Independent schools that have created innovative initiatives to engage grandparents in their community have attracted them as new donors who give more and earlier and attend more events.
"Grandparents are excellent stakeholders and investors," says Liz Minkin Friedman, director of development and strategic advancement at the Krieger Schechter Day School, a K–8 Jewish independent school in Maryland. "Many assist with tuition, donate generously, and recruit families. They are often the cheerleaders who encourage their children to send their children to our school."
Over the past 10 years, KSDS has seen a growing number of grandparents helping to pay their grandchildren's tuition, with at least 10 percent currently doing so. Other grandparents help with the additional costs of Jewish life and education, says head of school Moshe Schwartz.
In the past, KSDS didn't officially welcome grandparents until Grandparents' and Special Friends' Day in May. Beginning in 2017, though, KSDS has increased engagement and connectivity at the start of the school year by offering grandparents-only tours in September and October. The school's admissions director and a grandparent in the community lead the personalized tours, which cover the entire campus and offer little-known facts about the school.
"We had a grandparent who has had multiple grandkids go through the school," Minkin Friedman says. "She took the tour and said, ‘It made me fall more and more in love with the school.' We have this welcoming experience that the community grows from."
The Francis W. Parker School, a K–12 day school in Illinois, has seen an explosion in grandparent event attendance, with a 64 percent increase between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. That doesn't even include athletic events.
"Seeing grandparents want to get involved has had the biggest impact on our programming," says Connie Molzberger, Parker's associate director of development. During Grandparents' and Special Friends' Day in the spring, Parker staff take photos and afterward send the pictures with a thank you note to participants.
"I try to make things as personal as possible," Molzberger says. "As a parent, I'd love to have that memento. I think, ‘if I'd love that, they'd love that, too.'"
Personalization also applies to standard outreach materials: While email is still standard for independent schools' communications, mail is where it's at for grandparents. At Parker, Molzberger has found that grandparents respond best to mail solicitations or invitations, even if the letter asks them to RSVP online for an event.
"If you're thoughtful about it, you can do mail on a wide scale and add a personal touch," she says. "Handwritten notes are a great way to engage."
KSDS also sends grandparents a solicitation for financial support that includes their grandchild's school picture.
"It's a development tool," Minkin Friedman says. "Our donation base of grandparents is very impressive."
But the technological differences among generations have created a divide between grandparents and grandchildren. "Kids can be tough to talk to given technology," Molzberger says. "This is the first generation where grandparents are engaged with something they don't understand, and they're trying to get involved."
To address this relationship gap, 10 Parker grandparents started a committee to work with the school and each other to find ways to bond with their grandkids. For instance, they've requested class booklists so they can discuss the readings with their grandkids at the holidays. Molzberger also lets grandparents know when their grandchild has won an academic competition or is playing in a sports game.
When the committee began in 2015, 286 grandparents attended the sole grandparent event that year. For the 2017–18 school year, Molzberger expects more than 600 grandparents to participate in a variety of events. Overall, the committee affords grandparents an opportunity to better connect with their grandchildren while also learning more about Parker.
"You can't ask a grandparent for anything," Molzberger says, "if they don't know how great the school is."
Virgie Townsend is a freelance writer and editor living in Syracuse, New York. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, and other publications.