Private Schools Are Getting into the Lucrative Data Mining Business

The challenges facing the well-to-do New York City parent never end!

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The challenges facing the well-to-do New York City parent never end! If it's not combating the trials of having a child born in the summer, it's dealing with the insane costs of the private schools you are lucky enough to be selected to send your child to. And after that, it's confronting the reality of those private schools mining your personal data for more money. Jenny Anderson explores this contemporary twist in Upper East Side parenthood, using the example of Elle editor Rachael Combe (who ends up leaving New York City by the end of the story), among others:

Shortly after she enrolled her 3-year-old son in a prestigious, $21,000-a-year Upper East Side preschool, Rachael Combe, an editor at Elle, received an invitation from the head of the school to come by for a visit. She assumed the meeting was to discuss how her son was adapting to the school’s curriculum.

Instead, the head of school explained that he was laying the groundwork for a new capital campaign, and that he had already received commitments from various families — some up to $1 million. Would Ms. Combe and her husband consider a gift of “even $25,000 to $50,000?”

It turns out, private schools are not immune to the charms of the Internet, and are following in the footsteps of many an online marketer, "mining online data for details about parents’ homes, luxury cars, private planes, stock holdings and donations to other charities," writes Anderson. "So-called development offices, once the domain of part-time administrators and school volunteers, have been elevated along with the titles of those running them, who are now known as chief advancement officers, directors of philanthropy and heads of strategic initiatives. Heads of school report spending much of their time in search of money, according to surveys." The richest are courted the most intensely, not only because they have the most money (and tend to donate more), but because there is more available intel about them, "like the foundation boards they sit on and their political donations and property reports." 

Along with being potentially creeped out, parents are also a bit annoyed, since those schools are already pretty pricey, and the last thing anyone ever wants is to be asked for a donation to something and to be made to feel guilty about not giving it—this is a simple fact of human life. But what's particularly interesting is how thorough and even savvy the schools are being. It's advanced-level marketing strategy:

  • "Before a campaign begins, consultants interview 40 to 50 of the school’s top prospects to determine their level of interest in a campaign and how much they might give (a 'feasibility study'). The consultants also try to measure a school’s philanthropic capacity (a 'capacity analysis')."
  • "Donors are then wooed with personal touches based on schools’ research." This means, if a parent is involved with the MOMA, say, they will be enticed by discussions in the art arena. (With these targeted marketing efforts come promises that schools are only collecting public information relevant to fund-raising.)

And, yucky or not, good marketing brings results. School donations in New York City have increased jawdroppingly (268 percent) in the last 10 years, for a median donation per school of $1.7 million up from $462,341. Comparatively, the median donation per school nationally is just $895,614.

A week after Combe's uncomfortable meeting with the head of her son's school, she and her husband put their apartment on the market and got the heck out, moving to Westchester. But let's face it: Where there are wealthy parents willing to donate huge sums of money, and it seems there are an ongoing natural (or unnatural) spring of them in New York City, there will always be people—in the education business or elsewhere—wanting their share of that pie. As someone wise once said, hate the game, not the player.

Image via Shutterstock by Bikeriderlondon.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.