Zombies–Undead Colleges and Schools

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

by Ross Peters | Managing Partner

To read more of Ross’ writing, visit his blog.

When I was in seventh grade, I went to see Night of the Living Dead with a bunch of my classmates. It scared me something awful, and it was a bad place to be scared—news bulletin: seventh graders can be mercenary.

One of my friends reached beneath my wooden folding seat in the school theater and grabbed my ankles right as the zombie hands started to come through the windows of the house. Six years later, as a Freshman at Sewanee, my fraternity showed Dawn of the Dead as a fundraiser. We projected the film onto the side of the gym, so we could show it as a drive-in, and we ran the sound through the University’s radio station. As fun as the drive-in was, I have not had much use for Zombies since. In fact, I could go for the rest of my life never hearing about the undead again at all.

Unfortunately, we have to deal with them. Not individuals raised from the dead this time, but…Dum-dum-dum…Zombie Schools. COVID-19 didn’t create a crisis for private colleges and independent schools–it accelerated one.

Zombie Schools abandon strategy for choices that look more like those of a B-movie Zombie, flailing outstretched arms and moving toward the next shiny object that captures its attention.

Long before the advent of COVID-19, there was a great deal of talk—and scary talk, too—about how many schools (colleges and independent schools) are not in position to survive the next decade. Dramatic stuff and certainly true to an as yet to be determined degree. While such talk makes us aware of the existential challenges schools face, it also distracts us from what is perhaps an equal threat. While not closing, many more schools are likely to become directionless facsimiles of their former selves—in essence, Zombies, ones directed only by the need to stay open rather than by the worthy missions and important work that has driven them in the past. Zombie Schools abandon strategy for choices that look more like those of a B-movie Zombie, flailing outstretched arms and moving toward the next shiny object that captures its attention.

In many ways Zombie Schools look like their former selves—their buildings still look generally the same, possibly a bit more chipped and worn, their admissions brochures still portray happy and engaged students doing the stuff happy and engaged students do, but in truth, survival instinct has replaced their higher purpose. They are a sort of papier-mache—take a peak beneath the surface and you won’t find much, certainly not cohesive curriculum, consistent, high-quality teaching, or aspirational strategy and vision. Zombie Schools think of students more as sources of revenue rather than people to be served. Thus, they lose sight of the fact that they exist to serve others, rather than the other way around. Students shift from being the alpha and omega of organizational existence to being simply the means to organizational survival.


I understand that many reading this will see it as far less of a headline. In fact, they will point to clear examples of where Zombie Schools have always existed, and so, they will ask, “what’s new?!?” I don’t disagree. However, the growing scale of the issue is the concern because it points not simply to an existential issue for individual schools but rather to an existential issue for schools writ large—the entire enterprise. When independent school/private college education governance and leadership behaves like chaff in the market-place wind, they severely, potentially terminally, compromise the very value most essential to a school’s existence. It is at that point that schools become empty and meandering Zombies. Our schools and importantly, the students that attend them, deserve far more, and though I don’t know, no one really does, what the marketplace will look like coming out of this transformative moment, I have a feeling it will demand far better.

My worries for Zombie Schools include the following:

  • At the moment schools should be focusing on differentiation, they are likely to become more homogenous, thus becoming more vanilla and less of a draw for families and students.
  • The opposite can occur as well–schools may focus on differentiation based solely upon perceived market advantages rather than as a result of trying to improve student experience and/or outcomes.
  • Zombie Schools are more vulnerable to bad counsel and seek quick fixes to systemic challenges.
  • Because of increasingly desperate need to meet net tuition revenue demands in the face of a shrinking market, such schools back away from economic diversity. Dangerously, they may advertise that they can meet 100% of demonstrated need of admitted students, while admitting a higher and higher percentage of likely full-pay candidates in order to make their budgets work.
  • Because of the difficulty of covering expenses in the face of shrinking net tuition revenue, Zombie Schools cut into their value-added programming. In this way the school, in an effort to solve the near term issues, negatively impacts its ability to navigate long term challenges. It also dangerously impacts areas of perceived value.
  • Immediate needs will increasingly conflict with long term goals, and immediate needs will trump long term goals. Zombie Schools, forced to operate hand-to-mouth lose the ability a) to develop strategy and b) to execute on it if they can create it.
  • Zombie Schools seek saviors, not strategy; and they will hope for good fortune, rather than assess and react to their positions rationally.

Zombie Schools will represent a share of schools but certainly not all.  Private colleges and independent schools play necessary and vital roles in their communities, and I believe we will see amazing success stories come out of the decade ahead. That said, the future will likely only reward the thoughtfully bold. Schools that are able to find both better ways to serve students and more dynamic ways to be a neighbor in the communities in which they exist will be in the best position to engage the volatile school market-place. In short, when schools are successful in deserving the investment they ask others to make in them, they will not only survive, but they will also reset and solidify their legacy for decades to come.