Why, Who, When, What, How and Where
By D. Scott Looney
Director of Admission & Financial Aid, Cranbrook Schools
Independent school leaders are expected to envision a better future for their school, and build effective strategic plans to bring that vision to fruition. Many of the most important decisions that school heads, admission directors, development directors, business managers and school trustees must make should be shaped by the demographic realities, both local and global, of their particular school. Having a firm grip on the trends relating to: population, economy, public opinion, changes in family structures and changes in public consumer behavior are essential for effective strategic planning. Reviewing the current demographic, economic and sociological trends does not allow us to predict the future, but it does allow us to predict a variety of potential futures. Knowing what can be possible in the future allows us to make decisions in the present that guide us to one of the possible futures. To build strategic plans, leaders have to become adept at both local and global trend analysis.
At first blush demographic research can seem a bit daunting, and the idea of demographic trend analysis may appear downright frightening. Because many educational leaders may not know where to start or may be intimidated by the prospect of spending countless hours or thousands of dollars to produce quality demographic research, they oftentimes simply rely on anecdotal evidence and their own intuition. While the instincts and personal experiences of school leaders are often the hallmark of their success, that success can only be heightened when solid research and data also shape their decisions. Hiring a paid consultant to perform a demographic analysis of a school’s situation can result in valuable information and analysis. However, much of the information necessary to do quality research is free, available on the internet; and most of us working schools already possess the basic skills necessary to gather the data and interpret meaning from that data. With the additional focus on demography due to the 2000 census, the amount and variety of free or low cost, demographic data and analysis available on the World Wide Web it is likely to grow exponentially in the next couple of years.
Demographic trend analysis is, in fact, less daunting than it may seem, since most school administrators have already acquired many of the necessary skills. In fact, (to borrow from Robert Fulghum) most of what we need to know about demographic trend analysis we learned in kindergarten. Does the patterning exercise ABAB…ring a distant bell? In kindergarten classrooms children learn to guess that “A” comes next by recognizing the sequence of letters which have come before. Forecasting the future, while more complex, is still largely a patterning problem. What patterns can be discerned from reviewing the schools past statistical record in relation to the greater demographic, economic and sociological trends?
Demographic research and trend analysis, for the most part, is about attempting to forecast future developments and opportunities. The question of who should do the research and who will benefit most from such research is best answered by determining who has the greatest need to predict what the future might hold. The obvious candidates are those school administrators whose jobs are immediately effected by developments outside the school (internal institutional research, by the way, is probably even more important than external demographic research) and where forecasting is an essential part of the planning process. The researcher does not need to be the upper school math teacher who handles AP Probability and Statistics.
When do you need to take the time to conduct demographic research? When you face situations like these:
You are a new admission director of a school and need to understand where, and to what degree, you should invest your recruitment budget and staff energies?
Your school is considering expanding enrollment and the question has been posed to you…is this new larger capacity sustainable?
You are adding a significant program to your school (adding a lower school, an after care program, a summer camp, etc.).
Your Board is considering changing the tuition in a significant way.
You are the development director and have been asked by the board to gear up for a capital campaign.
You are the business manager and have been asked to come up with an auxiliary services plan which will bring in additional revenue for the school. Which of the potential new services will be most appealing to the marketplace?
Your school is launching a strategic plan.
The local economy (or demography, or sociography) appears to be shifting, but you are uncertain as to the extent or the meaning of this shift?
In trying to make the case to Cranbrook’s decision makers that the power of demographics and economics were largely responsible for Cranbrook’s recent enrollment history, we graphed Cranbrook’s enrollment versus the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. (in constant dollars) and the population of school age children in the U.S., indexed to fall within the same range. This comparison helped not only to demonstrate the likely relation between demography, economic conditions and enrollment, but also helped Board members begin to think about the tuition costs in a more long range way, and in relation to the prospect of future economic and demographic declines (see graph titled Cranbrook Schools Enrollment 1988-98 vs. Gross Domestic Product in 1992 constant dollars and vs. Population of School Age Children in the U.S.).
The type of demographic data any school needs to review is dependent upon the problem or process with which that school is dealing. In cases where a general strategic planning process is being launched, then a global and extensive review of the demographic landscape may be in order. However, if the problem is to determine if the proposal for a new summer day camp for pre-school children is viable, then the search for useful data would be focused and limited. In this example it might be useful to examine data like the local population of pre-school aged children, local family incomes, educational attainment of the local parents, and number of local competitor camps available to families with young children.
Just about any data that is collected anywhere, particularly from government agencies is available on the Internet. Some of the most bizarre and obscure data can be located if you probe patiently and have solid technological skills. However, the most useful data are also some of the easiest to access, requiring no experience and little technological skill. The types of data that are readily available and generally most useful include:
National Population Trends and Forecasts
State Population Trends and Forecasts
Zipcode specific population trends
School Enrollment and Forecasts
Marital Status and Living Arrangements
Child Care Arrangements
Labor Force and Occupation
The Black Population
The Hispanic Population
The Asian / Pacific Islander Population
Consumer Spending Habits
In only 27 minutes, searching a user-friendly demographic website (www.easidemographics.com), I was able to produce a graph (see graph titled: Average and Median Incomes for Cranbrook’s top ten Day Student Communities vs. the Michigan and U. S. Averages) that detailed the median and average family incomes for the top ten communities from which students enrolled at Cranbrook with a comparison to the Michigan and U.S. averages. Cranbrook’s admission staff was in the process of trying to increase our socio-economic diversity in our lower and middle schools, while at the same time trying to increase the numbers of full paying day student applicants to our upper school. In regard to our upper school, we were interested in knowing which areas had the greatest affluence, while needing to know which areas were less affluent for our lower and middle school recruitment efforts. The original search revealed very high levels of affluence in our most common sending cities, good news for our upper school efforts. However, since we also wanted to know where there were more children who were less affluent and younger, we expanded this demographic research outward to cities that were still geographically close but did not necessarily send us many kids. We were successful in locating several areas that had high numbers of young school age children and relatively low family incomes. Then once we targeted the zipcodes which seem to fit our criteria for our day recruitment goals, we then searched for specific neighborhoods within those zipcodes which fit the criteria even more closely. The search for affluent teenagers and lower income young children in metro Detroit was remarkably simple to achieve, and this data was invaluable in helping us target our upper, lower and middle school day student recruitment efforts.
The best demographic research is usually gathered in reference to a specific issue, problem, challenge or opportunity for a school. Once the data is gathered, it is important to give the data a context and establish the specific relevance for the school. Oftentimes the relevance of the data is determined by the manner in which the data search was conducted. In the previous Cranbrook example, the data collected was relevant since we were only examining those communities which sent a large number of students to the school, had the proper family incomes and also had notably numbers of appropriately aged children. If we had simply stopped the inquiry at family incomes around the Cranbrook location, the data would have held little usefulness. The most common misuses of demographic research are either due to data which are simply too general in nature, or data which do not have a direct connection to the situation of the school. Data too broad or without context are not worth collecting.
American Demographics, The Futurist (published by the World Futures Society) and Revolution: Business and Marketing in the Digital Economy are just a few of the excellent magazines with current and useful summaries of the prevailing demographic trends. They provide a great overview of salient issues and trends, and provide forecasts in a host of areas. However, the World Wide Web provides the fastest, cheapest and easiest means to search for specific demographic data. Provided below are my favorite demographic websites.
Top Demographic Websites
|The U.S. Census Bureau||A well designed site with a remarkable array of data. This site likely to expand greatly with the release of 2000 census data. Includes a variety of demographic projections to the year 2025. Relatively user friendly if you have the right software already loaded. (May require Adobe Acrobat Reader, Macromedia Shockwave or Win-zip software to view many of the reports).|
|Fed Stats||All of the public statistics from over 70 public agencies. If the government keeps the statistic and makes it public, you can find it on this site! Similar to the U. S. Census site, yet even more data, however, less user friendly.|
|University of Texas – Austin||List of nearly every possible link of publicly available demographic data. A great overall list of demographics links!|
|“The Right Site” Easi Demographics||Offers up to 10 free customized demographic reports, very user friendly, with detail down to specific neighborhoods. Strong selection of reports detailing family incomes, race, property ownership, etc. Searchable by state, city, zipcode, or even down to the neighborhood level using specific latitude and longitude. Great site, particularly for beginners!|
|American Demographics Magazine||Many of their great articles are available The “Websites worth knowing about” has great suggested links.|
|EconData||Links to nearly every government and academic data source imaginable. Has the best “top ten” links list anywhere. For highly detailed economic research, this site might be the place to start.|
|Economic Information Systems||Great site for economic data. Very user friendly with terrific graphs and graphics. Wonderful profiles of major metro area economic conditions.|
|CASI Marketing Systems||Will give a very detailed information with national comparisons of any zipcode in the U.S. Uses the ACORN System of neighborhood profiling. A useful and easy to use site.|
|Independent Schools of the Central States (ISACS)||Interesting tables and graphs forecasting demographic trends to 2020. Good income and race projections.|
|GeoStat: Geospatial & Statistical Data Center (University of Virginia Library)||Incredibly detailed and graphical data, searchable in nearly every manner you can imagine. This is a great site for highly specific research, but not for the rookie research or technology novice.|
|Premier Insights||Some great national data free, and will send other free reports by e-mail or by fax. Can specify down to a 1.5 mile radius of any major road intersection. Good data, not so user friendly however.|
|Cyberatlas: The Big Picture Demographics||A host of terrific articles, projections and demographic summaries. No searchable raw data however.|