Independent schools in America today share a common desire to strengthen their admissions pipeline and recruit a more diverse student body so as to enrich the educational and social learning of each student.  The key to achieving these goals is a deep understanding of two things:

  1. The parents of potential future students; who they are and what matters to them most when choosing between schools and,
  2. The competitive advantage their school has in the market place in the eyes of those future parents with regard to what matters most to them, their school “differentiators.”

Pacific Consulting Group (PCG) self-funded and conducted what we termed a “Fence Sitter” study to garner this information on behalf of independent schools. Our aim is to provide the leadership of independent schools with the customer insights they need to achieve their goals. We define fence sitters and share our research approach and findings with you below.

Who are the fence sitters?

“Fence Sitters” are those parents who when thinking about whether to place their children in public or private school say they could go either way. They are the families that may not have gravitated towards the idea of a placing their children in an independent school, but they haven’t rejected it either.

We identified fence sitters by asking families with school age children a very simple question:  “How likely are you to CONSIDER a private independent high school for your middle school child?”  We’re asking “How likely are you to shop?” rather than “How likely are you to buy?” confronting the traditional outcome-based approach.

The first thing we discovered was that the fence sitter parents, those who self-identified as being neutral or slightly likely to consider private independent school, comprised almost 30% of the population surveyed.  A healthy percentage.

The second finding was that Fence Sitter parents differ demographically from parents who are already convinced about sending their children to private school.  Fence sitters tend to have a public school background, lower education and income level, and live in more suburban/rural areas.  They also tend to feel less informed about private schools, perceive less difference between public and private schools, and hold strong influence over their child’s school choice.

We would caution leaders of independent schools against simply assuming they know who their future parents are without the research data to confirm their assumptions.

Who are the Fence Sitter Parents?

Convinced Parents Fence Sitter Parents
Child’s current school Private Public
Parents’ high school Private Public
Parents’ education level Higher Lower
Income level Higher Lower
Area Urban Suburban/Rural
Informed about private school More Less
Influence on school decision Child Parent
Perceived difference private/public Larger Smaller

What matters to Fence Sitters MOST?

By talking with our independent school partners and their parents and drawing upon our years of research experience in the sector we were quickly able to identify 18 school choice factors influencing all parents, including fence sitter parents. More of value than knowing what matters to customers, is knowing what matters to them most.

We uncovered this information by including MaxDiff methodology in our Fence Sitter Survey. The MaxDiff enabled us to ascertain what was relatively more to important to fence sitter parents, to identify the choice factors that held more sway in their decision-making process.

What is important to Fence-Sitter Parents:

What are your school’s “Differentiators?”

When it comes to engaging parents, knowing what’s truly important to them is just the first step. The second step is to know your schools true “differentiators.” Your “differentiators” are the choice factors that matter to parents where those parents also perceive you to have an advantage compared to other schools.

We conducted a proprietary analysis based on MaxDiff to analytically combine the ratings on importance AND data on perceived competitive advantage to arrive at the differentiators that matter for private independent schools in our region of study.  These turned out to be building moral character, safe environment, college placement success, and individualized classroom instruction.

Influencing strategies and marketing messaging focused around these differentiators are more likely to resonate and ring true with fence sitter parents. They will be more effective at pushing them off the proverbial fence and into your admissions pipeline.

Lastly, our findings found that fence sitters could be segmented into two, similarly sized, parent groups, one more achievement oriented, one more oriented towards personal and character development. This segmentation allows for further tailoring of marketing to attract different types of parent.

Fence Sitter Types:


In summary

If you are an independent school leader, looking to encourage parents to trust their children’s education to you, then make sure to find your fence sitters and learn what matters to them most. Then identify and focus your marketing messaging on your schools’ true differentiators. With deep customer insights you will be better equipped to widen your admissions pipeline, reap the rewards of a more diverse student population and have greater school success.

If you would like to discuss how a customer insights survey could benefit your independent school, please contact the education team at PCG to request a free consultation.

Author: Beruria Novich, Senior Manager, Customer Insights

Beruria has more than 15 years of experience managing customer-focused research projects for numerous private schools

Pacific Consulting Group (PCG) has been serving the K-12 private school market for over 20 years, providing market and customer insights to help schools maintain high levels of parent, student, alumni and faculty satisfaction.