What Motivates Parents to Pay for Private School?

Getting families to send their children to private school is a big decision. It’s not one they make quickly. Yet there are ways to help the families that are considering your school make that decision easier and faster.

In his ground-breaking book Hot Button Marketing: Pushing the Emotional Buttons That Get People to Buy, consumer behaviorist Barry Feig identifies 16 “hot buttons” that motivate purchasing behavior. Successful marketers identify and push the hot buttons that will best motivate their target audiences to make a purchase their products can best fulfill.

These hot buttons range from “desire for control” to “excitement of discovery” to “family values” to “wish fulfillment.” The problem is, many private schools don’t know which hot buttons are behind parents’ decisions to send their children to their schools. So they waste time and energy pushing the wrong buttons or even highlighting buttons that could send parents in the other direction—”poverty of time” is one button, and an overload of extracurricular options could overwhelm a parent. Or they focus tremendous efforts highlighting issues that matter to some parents but not others.

Here’s the full list of Feig’s hot buttons: desire for control, I’m better than you, excitement of discovery, revaluing, family values, desire to belong, fun is its own reward, poverty of time, desire to get the best, self-achievement, sex/love/romance, nurturing response, reinventing oneself, make me smarter, power/dominance/influence, and wish fulfilment.

At first glance, it seems there are many items on that list that private schools could target. To maximize efforts, schools should focus on the one that appeals to the greatest number of parents and highlight all the ways they can meet that specific need.

Fortunately, the Secondary School Admission Test Board (SSATB) conducted a survey that helps schools know just what button to push. This survey had 2,300 participants whose children took the SSAT between August 1, 2013, and February 28, 2014. They came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were brand-new to private schools, while others had been sending their children for years.  There was one thing that 97% of these parents agreed on when it came to why they wanted their children to attend private school.

It wasn’t “family values,” “desire to belong,” or “nurturing response.” It wasn’t “desire to get the best.” The reason nearly every parent wanted to send his or her child to private school fell under the hot button of “make me smarter.” The primary reason these families selected private school over the alternatives was the parents believed the private school would “provide an education that will challenge the child.”

When attracting families to their schools, many admissions directors focus on their beautiful campuses and extensive extracurricular activities. While these are all good and appeal to some aspects of a parent’s “wish list,” they don’t speak to the fundamental question parents are asking:  Will your school make my child smarter?

The strength of the academic program will be what ultimately motivates a parent to decide for or against a school. Therefore, the SSATB recommends that “independent schools spend time with prospective families describing their model for teaching and learning as well as their standards for student success.”  Rather than softening the description of the standards to avoid overwhelming parents, schools should actually focus on the challenges that they will offer. Certainly, schools should not imply that a particular child is not equipped to handle the challenges, but the emphasis should be on the atmosphere of growth that will allow each student to regularly reach new academic heights.

If former students have gone on to reach high levels of academic achievement upon graduation or have professional success that can be directly tied to their academic background, highlight them. Shine a spotlight on faculty members who have prestigious credentials or have been awarded for their ability to motivate students. Parents want your school to make their children smarter: show that you have the right staff to do so and have done it before.

As there has been a nationwide decrease in private school enrollment, it’s more important than ever to know exactly what motivates parents to eschew other available options and choose to fund a private school education for their children instead. They don’t just want to know that your school can make their children smart – they want to know that you can provide them with academic advantages and opportunities that will make them smarter than they would be if they went to school elsewhere.

A child’s education is an emotional decision for a parent.  Emotional decisions are typically driven by Feig’s 16 hot-button issues. Some apply more in one situation than another, and it’s rare to find a decision that’s driven by just one issue. So when 97% of your target audience agrees on something, it’s absolutely critical that you take note.


Marla Leung

Marla Leung

As a former international school principal, teacher, sales representative, and marketing director, Marla brings a wealth of business and education experience to Smart Tuition. Prior to joining Smart, Marla managed the southeast sales region for Tuition Management Systems. Her knowledge of private and faith based schools and the tuition industry made her a natural choice to be our Director of Communications. Marla has an Ed.S degree in Educational Leadership. A graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Communication, Marla is at ease speaking in front of groups; in fact, she has been a featured presenter at regional and national associations on topics of importance to school business officers.


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