The High School Brand Conundrum…

Sunday morning Steve Politi in the Newark Star Ledger wrote a great column about the difference between St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey and St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City. The two are legendary basketball powerhouses with national profiles and have been for years. The difference, St. Anthony’s is continuing on while St. Pat’s is probably closing its doors. The situation is not different in many communities around the country. In Brooklyn, Nazareth High School, despite its winning tradition in sport, is also closing its doors and that same scenario is repeating itself again and again. Why is this happening in an era where education is being placed at a premium and parents are finding ways to spend large amounts of money for prep schools starting at the kindergarten level to huge fees for universities? Is it because the schools are located in urban areas where there are less students now or is the value of the education less than what it was? Is it a business and marketing issue? The answer is probably all of the above, and it is not limited just to Catholic schools who need to cut programs in the arts and athletics.

The problem many times is in the planning of the school as a business. Politi’s article points to the fact that St. Anthony’s has and has had a longer term vision to control cost and raise consistent funds by showing those who are contributing a return on what they are spending. It is not a donation, it is an investment into a human commodity, the students of the school. Yes it helps that the school, led by Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley, has a national footprint. But just being great in sports does not solve the overall issue of how the school is run and how the money that is raised through athletics or other programs is spent. Schools have a vast database of alumni in many cases…they have hard working parents who struggle to make sure their kids get a solid education. They have teachers who want to see the kids succeed in life. Yet many private schools are reticent to use all those assets together, as a business, to go to corporations and ask for not large sums of cash all the time, but other assets they may have both in marketing and philanthrophy to offset costs.

Many times private schools see this as “selling out.” Bringing in corporations to offer programs to students attached to a brand, or selling the naming rights to a gym or a music room or even logos on school uniforms, is somehow demeaning or “professional.” Yet it is becoming more and more true that schools with the current business model cannot survive long term. Alumni and corporations do want to help, but they need to see a return on their investment. They no longer want to just put a patronage ad in a program or go to a golf outing. They want to see how their dollars will move the needle. Now there are several companies around the country helping schools and school districts manage their assets and improve their visibility and bottom line without compromising the integrity of the school. There are also many schools both private and public that have seen these issues coming and have taken steps to bring in professional fund raising people who can deal and manage such issues on a daily basis. Those schools will thrive because they are being viewed both as businesses and assets of the community vs. just being charities.

There is also the issue of pooling rights and coming up with more assets for a larger spend. Professional leagues long ago saw the value in revenue sharing. Now high schools, especially groups in inner cities that have storied shared traditions in athletics, have to look at the same type of pooling. Do lists of 100,000 alumni have more value than a list of 10,000? Sure. Can those lists be managed internally for a corporation so that they are not corrupted? Are there brands that would come in with programs that can benefit students in technology or science or health that would see value in a larger outreach program? The answer to all is yes, with careful planning and a long term goal that benefits all from a smart business and brand perspective.

It’s not about slapping a name and logo on a gym or asking prominent alumni…again…for $10,000 to keep the doors open for another year or four. It is about vision, leadership, tough decisions and pooling assets. if not, even the most swanky of athletic programs will not be able to save the value of private education, especially in the inner cities, and more tragedies like those at St. Pat’s and Nazareth will continue.