Sylvan Learning made its name by pioneering a scalable franchise model for supplemental education services. In the 38 years since the company’s founding, Sylvan has grown to more than 750 units across the globe and inspired other learning and education franchises, but the brand remains distinguished by a uniquely holistic approach to education, one that provides a comprehensive learning continuum to customers and an unprecedented opportunity for growth to franchisees.
Where most supplemental education services specialize in discrete subjects, Sylvan has designed a suite of programs for every need, allowing the brand to serve the same customer repeatedly as that customer progresses through school.
“Most other learning services are focused on math, test prep, or some other specific subject, and as a result, they get customers who need help in that one subject and then move on,” said Alan Catlett, Vice President of Product Management at Sylvan Learning. “Because Sylvan takes a holistic approach, we attract customers with a broad spectrum of needs, and we’re able to capture them throughout their school life. In some cases, we’ll work with students from kindergarten all the way through college.”
Cost of acquisition is a major concern for any business owner. Because Sylvan’s model has the potential to retain customers long after their initial service is complete, the cost of acquisition is dwarfed compared to the long-term return.
“Customer retention may be our biggest value proposition,” Catlett said. “That’s an area where we are unmatched in the industry.”
For students, Sylvan’s holistic approach offers a number of benefits. Because Sylvan is focused on the whole student, and has a variety of subjects in the curriculum, Sylvan can focus on what the goals of the family are for each child, both short term and long term. Students who partner with Sylvan often find that they can master skills and move on to the next level, pushing farther than the original goal of coming into the center. That general academic proficiency provides a higher-level of confidence that informs every aspect of the student’s life both inside and outside of the classroom.
There is a reason that most of Sylvan’s competitors remain married to a single subject or service. In the franchise world, simplicity is seen as key to survival. To ensure consistency among franchise locations and maintain an operational model that can be applied by franchisees with different backgrounds, many franchise brands attempt to simplify their operations at every opportunity, and that typically means limiting services. Sylvan has bucked that trend by expanding its services while simultaneously simplifying their operations.
“The key to operational simplicity is not in the services offered, but in the delivery of those services,” said Catlett. “Most teachers are not limited to one subject; they have a degree in education or are trained in early-childhood learning. They are equipped to deliver each of our programs to students. For our owners, no matter the subject or student’s age, the intake process and teaching model remains the same.”
That teaching model allows one teacher for every three students, each working on individual learning plans. The three-to-one ratio allows teachers to provide dedicated attention to each student while still servicing a high number of students each day.
“The three-to-one model is the perfect balance for teachers and students,” Catlett said. “With so few students to teach at a time, teachers are able to service each of them individually, even if they are working on completely different subjects.”
By keeping their operation model streamlined and standardized across programs, Sylvan is able to continue to offer new products and programs, adding new revenue streams without burdening franchisees.
“We meticulously gather and analyze data from all of our programs,” said Catlett. “That allows us to see what’s working and what can be improved, so the more services we offer, the better we can understand the strengths and weaknesses of our model and adjust accordingly.”
One of Sylvan’s newest services is an in-house test-prep curriculum designed to expand Sylvan’s menu of services while reducing overhead costs for franchisees.
“By building our own test-prep curriculum, we’ve been able to massively cut down on our material costs,” said Catlett. “We can print our own study plans rather than buying books and partnering with vendors.”
One of Sylvan’s most ambitious service-expansion efforts is Sylvan EDGE, their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program, which is designed to reach each location’s broader community, captivating students who may not yet be Sylvan customers. Sylvan teachers take the EDGE program to special events, including school fairs, boy- and girl-scout troops, and after-school programs, to introduce programs focusing on math, science, and engineering—including the ever-popular robotics and coding classes—to young children.
“In many ways, Sylvan EDGE really encapsulates what Sylvan is all about,” said Catlett. “It’s a completely portable, completely standardized product that each location can roll out easily and effectively, it provides us an avenue to reach out to the community, and it’s designed with a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to learning. Those are all key elements of the Sylvan model.”
Sylvan continues to roll out new products and services, folding each into its streamlined delivery model that allows franchisees to service students of all ages and all levels from remedial to accelerated. In doing so, the brand has been able to continually increase their value proposition to both customers and owners, making them one of the most innovative brands not just in education, but in all of franchising.