From the Director: Life in Boomtown

by Vince Durnan, director

What does expected growth from businesses moving to town mean for enrollment at University School of Nashville?
People in our hallways ask all kinds of questions. It’s really one of the joys of being at USN—you never know who you might bump into, but you almost always can count on our thought-provoking crowd. That said, questions do tend toward common directions, based on events of the moment. Maybe about the cost of education, or school security, or trends in college admission, or kids and technology. Lately, though, it’s been about how USN should and will respond to our city being the target of so much relocation energy.
Last Sunday’s New York Times called Nashville, when comparing us to the “urban giants” like New York or San Francisco, “the top end of this next echelon,” noting that “the number of college graduates younger than 35 nearly doubled over a decade, to 155,000 by 2017.” All enviable attributes, especially to the many less fortunate mid-sized cities that are rusting in place. But what will it mean for us? Ultimately, where will the upward trend lines top out, and then what will follow?
Not too many years ago, a cohort of us school leaders answered civic officials’ insistent call to hear about the difference the Nissan North America move from Orange County, California would surely make in our enrollments. Actually, Williamson County turned out to be the apple of those families’ eyes, leaving negligible effects for the rest of us. Something feels different about Alliance Bernstein, EY, and Amazon and other firms announcing moves, now focused on the Gulch and the Yards (is that even the right thing to call the project?) and downtown—crane central. The conversations have been fun, but very much early stage, as they say, while the offices and condos and tall skinnies proliferate.
In fact, we are experiencing a healthy uptick in applications so far this year, though it would be wrong to say we know exactly why or to reach any corresponding broad conclusions. It’s fair to say our city’s prosperity must be helping, right alongside the quality of our program, delivered by our talented faculty, not to mention our continuing efforts to tell our story widely and well. As a thought experiment, let’s imagine that the 115-people-a-day momentum continues and consider our options.
We could simply enjoy and adjust to the competitiveness of a bigger applicant pool for the same number of slots, not unlike our university neighbors across the street, and imagine the difference that might make for our student body—though the challenges of designing an airtight kindergarten meritocracy would not be insignificant, and while colleges draw globally, we need sensitivities locally. Make no mistake, we’re enormously grateful for the healthy interest in USN expressed by families from near and far. It’s just right to think of all the potential implications—and we will.
There may instead come a time when we consider substantially expanded enrollment, the way nearby universities up the hill have done of late. But please remember that as recently as two years ago, a USN community survey and follow-up Board discussion revealed almost no interest in either spinning out another school or growing skyward here on Edgehill. Still, we could decide to frame those questions anew and reconsider.
One other option would be to raise and re-center tuition to better align with what the market could bear. Let me state categorically and invite you to confirm by virtue of our decisions in the past decade that no such idea has factored in our plans. At the same time, schools in cities experiencing Nashville’s kind of tailwind have found it hard to resist pricing up. Witness Seattle, Denver, or San Diego. Not that the incremental dollars wouldn’t open some doors of opportunity, but the unintended consequences for families working hard to write the check loom large for us. Such has been the case, especially since the Great Recession in 2008.
Which raises one last possibility—what if some part of all this excitement and growth turns out to be a bubble? Not to look for storm clouds, but decisions about the size and shape and financial model of our dear school have long tails, keeping our risk tolerance understandably low. Still, the decision to watch and wait is a decision in itself, with its own potential ramifications. The city’s current rocket ride defies precedent and prognostication. What’s certain is that ours is not the typical independent school storyline nationwide. So we’ll walk our walk with care.
For that and for so much more, I’m thankful to the very core as Winter Break and a big dose of family time arrive.
May your respite be as restorative as it is celebratory,
    • Director Vince Durnan at Grandparents & Special Friends' Day 2018.

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