There’s something special about the start of the fall enrollment season. Students and families are excited to explore their school options and admission teams are ready to welcome them to campus. One fall when I was in admissions, I remember meeting a student who was a perfect fit for the school: a young entrepreneur who had started a doughnut business. Not only had they brought a sampling of their wares for us to enjoy, but they also spoke thoughtfully about the ups and downs of starting a business as a teenager.
Marketing and recruitment of new families is one of the most important tasks of both the enrollment office and, if your school is large enough, your partners on the marketing team. Whether you have more than enough qualified future doughnut magnates applying to your school or you work until November to hit your numbers, this work is critical to your success.
The Enrollment Management Spectrum defines Marketing & Recruitment of New families in this way:
The school effectively identifies and recruits an adequate number of appropriate families and stewards them through the admission process.
What does this look like in practice?
There are many tools at the disposal of the enrollment and marketing teams to identify and recruit new families. School fairs, social media, advertisements, open houses, word of mouth, feeder schools, consultants, purchased lists, content marketing, and travel to select cities and countries all serve to drive engagement with the school’s website and convert interested families into qualified leads. Once families have engaged with the school, they can be stewarded through the enrollment process. Families may request more information, attend an event, and hopefully visit campus for a tour and interview before they finally begin their application.
Recent generational shifts have disrupted this traditional funnel, however.
GenX parents in their 40s and 50s are now the dominant age cohort shopping for independent schools. Their habit of researching major purchases online before shopping in person has led to the rise of the stealth applicant. These families may not be in touch with the school until relatively late in the enrollment process. But by the time they do make contact, they are highly qualified leads.
Millennials in their 20s and 30s are the next generation who are shopping for independent schools. If your school has lower grades, you’re already seeing this cohort. They may be more inclined to align their school choice with their family values and are more skeptical of traditional marketing messages. Reviewing websites, listening to word-of-mouth, and connecting with other families will be important for these families. But most of all, millennials seek out brands that get real and rally behind a cause, and simply "being a school" doesn’t count. Millennial parents will want to know what your school stands for.
Social, financial, and political factors that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic have also been thrown into sharp relief in recent years. As Heather Hoerle, EMA’s Executive Director and CEO, recently put it:
“Whenever we start collecting all the factors disrupting independent school enrollment, we have to keep adding to the list. Who could have predicted five years ago that we would have to add ‘global pandemic’?”
And we’re seeing these disruptors and generational changes play out in the data. A recent EMA survey revealed that an astonishing 67% of families are searching for a new independent school before the last year at their child’s current school yet only about a third of schools have a formal retention committee dedicated to keeping families engaged.
How should schools respond to these internal and external pressures when it comes to marketing and recruiting families? Begin by better understanding the mission of your school, how you live it out every day, and what you stand for that’s larger than yourself. As Simon Sinek famously put it, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Once you’ve understood your "why" make sure it’s well represented in your marketing materials, website, and the stories you tell about your school. Audit the handoff of leads from the marketing department to the enrollment team. Make sure families are promptly responded to and correctly tracked. Where appropriate adopt new and more sophisticated tools, but also invest in your team. Training, support, networking, and best-in-class resources will pay dividends far beyond a particular set of software tools.
Developing an adequate pipeline of appropriate families is work that never ends but by adopting an enrollment management approach and starting today you’ll be well on your way.
Are you wondering how things turned out with that doughnut entrepreneur? When that May came around, we learned they would be enrolling at a different school. We were certainly disappointed. Had we not hustled hard enough? Was there some feature or benefit of the school we hadn’t articulated clearly enough? Although we had lost the opportunity to enroll that particular student, we knew the cycle of reflection and continuous improvement wouldn’t end. We would not only improve the website, but also look beyond the admission office to other parts of the school to see how we could all improve to create even more powerful experiences for families.
The start of the fall enrollment season was just a few months away after all, and we couldn’t wait to get started.