The Millennial Parent
Updated: Jun 28
As millions of college-educated, American Millennials (CAMs) become parents each year, they're discovering that choosing a school for their children is one of the most complicated aspects of their adult lives. If you've followed trends in independent school enrollment, or if you are an enrollment professional, you know how elusive these prospective parents of little people are, how many questions they have once they've entered the process, and how hard you must work to retain them.
Alas, leaders in some other market sectors have had a more predictable experiences with CAMs. Expected to eschew auto and home ownership and suburban drift, new parent CAMs have followed the path of previous generations of Americans in acquiring suburban homes and the necessary wheels to navigate that landscape. Parenthood and college debt have also moved them from cutting edge brand connoisseurship to much more pragmatic buying habits: Rubbermaid is the new Yeti. In these market segments, and defying earlier predictions, CAMs are tracking previous generations as they move into parenthood.
Education, however, is a far more complicated issue for CAM parents. Their own experience with schooling holds a very different place practically and psychologically. Having doubled in cost since 1980, independent school and college tuitions have resulted in historic student loan debt for CAMs, 45% of whom possess it at an average of over $34,000 per capita. Likewise, although they are often touted as the most highly educated generation in American history, the number of CAMs with post-secondary education is only marginally greater than the youngest Boomers, and because other industrialized nations have grown post-secondary education at a faster rate, CAMs find themselves further down the world rankings (#16 vs. #3 for youngest Boomers) in an increasingly global economy. The end result is that CAMs find their net worth 34% behind their same age peers from 2007.
Not only are CAMs ambivalent about the value of their own educations, they are also becoming parents at a particularly fractious time in American education. Even as college and independent school tuitions soar past affordability for all but top earners, the promise of disruption and cost savings through digital technology, the growth of charter, home and other alternative school options, the exciting results of brain research, all make for hot conversation but no clear answers. Most education "hacks" have yielded marginal results at best and been patently fraudulent at worst.
And finally, because they have had children later and spent their lives with fingertip access to information, CAMs are more confident parents of young children than the previous two generations. CAM parents can move well beyond Drs. Spock and Brazleton and the What to Expect books for second opinions and, at the tap of a finger, connect with 20 friends for counsel. In combination, all of these influences make CAMs tireless researchers of schooling options for their children and that much more frustrated by the opacity of the answers.
What remains to be seen is how that confidence in parenting will change as the children of CAMs grow older. Sociologists know (and anyone with children would guess) that parents become less confident in their parenting as their children draw closer to adolescence, and their value goals for schools shift from nurturing and happiness to academic preparation. The average child of CAMs is moving into the middle elementary grades now, grade levels in which many independent schools are experiencing growth, coincidentally. One might guess that because the CAM perspective on education is suffused with financial and philosophical tension, the decline in their parenting confidence could be more precipitous than previous generations'.
All of this argues for focused content marketing and intimate word of mouth efforts by independent schools (we'll leave affordability and programmatic excellence for another blog post). Independent schools should share their expertise in child development, parenting, learning and the excellent outcomes of an independent school education with internal and external audiences, ideally in easily boosted formats like blogs, conveyed across social media platforms. If CAMs are committed researchers on behalf of their children and less nostalgic about their own school experiences (and need consistent reminders about your school's value proposition), independent schools should endeavor to be in their bookmarks before and after their children are admitted. And, because CAMs count their friend networks among their most valuable research resources, independent schools should build structure around their word of mouth efforts by creating advocacy groups of loyal, enthusiastic parents and asking them to promote the school in their social and professional networks--no hard sell, just "School's been great for our family. Why don't you come take a look." Chances are very high that word of mouth brings over 80% of prospective parents to your school. With CAMs coming of age as parents, it's even more important that a similar percentage of your marketing efforts should be focused on building and leveraging the enthusiastic regard of your current and past parents and alumni.