Whenever I consult with a new school, the first question I always ask is “why is your enrollment down?” Now, this seems like a very simplistic question, but it is designed to better understand the client’s understanding of the full enrollment cycle. I have had some sophisticated clients respond with answers like, “our website conversion is not working very well” or “our yield rate of prospects to enrolled is lower than we would like”, but clients who have been able to pinpoint their challenges are usually the exception.
The most common answer is, “We just don’t know. All we know is that we are getting fewer families than in the past and we need to increase enrollment”.
Steven Covey, the author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, laid out 7 precepts that he found made people more effective. The one that I love the most is #5 which is to “Seek first to understand (then to be understood)”.
This is critical when you are looking at improving your school’s enrollment. Once you understand why your total numbers are down, you can more easily fix the problem.
A lot of times schools have a bias for action. They want to instantly create a new marketing flyer or kick off Facebook advertising, but often if you slow down and attempt to truly understand why your enrollment is down, you will be a lot more effective in your solutions. To be effective in your marketing and enroll more students, the first step is to break down the enrollment process into discrete process steps:
The four components of a strong school enrollment program
Whenever I have presented on enrollment marketing, I share with the audience the 4 components of an enrollment system. By breaking this down into these categories, it helps schools to understand exactly where in the process they might have opportunities to improve
These categories are:
Aristotle famously stated, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom”. The first step is to get a good handle on your own operations. Spend some time analyzing your enrollment data and retention data for the past 5 years. Is your problem that you are not attracting enough students, or that you attract them, but then they leave your school and you are constantly recruiting new families?
Are there specific grades that you struggle to fill or keep full? Having a good handle on your data, which I covered in depth in this article forms the cornerstone of understanding your enrollment operations.
Next, look at all the schools around you. These are the choices that your parents have when they are selecting a school for their children. How do you compare? Are you better or worse? Do you offer something different and compelling that would make a parent choose your school over the next?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, it might be helpful to read this article about conducting competitive analysis. Knowing about your “competition” is important when you are trying to attract parents.
Once you know yourself and know your environment, it is important to know your parents. Know what is important to them. Strong academics, yes, but what else are they seeking in a school? Is it a specific subject like STEM or art? Do they want more foreign language exposure? Is character building something that they want your school to actively engage in?
Using surveys, focus groups or just getting out and talking to them will help you to truly understand your parents. I talked about the importance of surveys and building parent personas previously and I would encourage you to read those articles.
Once you know all of this, you can create the story about your school. You know what your parents want and you know how that offering sets you apart from the other schools in your area. Many schools skip over the components in this step, but it is so critical to take the time to really understand and know!
Once you have a strong understanding of your school, your environment, and of your customer, you can begin the process of trying to attract families to your school (Marketing). The first step is to ensure that your website (the cornerstone of your marketing efforts) is in good shape.
I have covered the importance of the website 3 Best Practices for Building a Strong School Website and in this article on Making your website a True Marketing Asset. If you are not attracting enough prospective parents – it might be time to improve your website.
However, your website is not the only place that parents will go to seek out information about your school. Many parents want to first hear about your school from the perspective of your current parents and students. Often, their first source of information about your school comes from the various online review sites for schools. If you don’t have a strong “digital reputation” for your school because of poor reviews, this might be the reason why parents aren’t engaging with your school.
There are other “offline” places that you can use to identify leads. If you are a parochial school that is struggling with enrollment (and let’s be honest, most do), have you really tapped into the parish and maximized your efforts there?
One of the key sources of students is going to be schools that end before your first grade begins. Engaging in a strategy to leverage these “feeder” schools will help you to identify potential families and begin the process of turning them into enrolled families.
Once you have identified families that might be good fits for your school, are you actively wooing them or trying to encourage them to engage with your school in a tour or attending one of your recruitment events. If you don’t have a strong email nurturing program, you might benefit from reading this article on developing one.
Once you have maximized these channels, you should have a significant group of prospective families that you have identified and nurtured to eventually come to your school for a recruitment event.
Your school tour should be the capstone of your school enrollment efforts. Here is your chance to “WOW” prospective parents and get them to enroll their child. But often, schools don’t spend the time thinking through ways to make the school tour better.
Most of your time and money will be spent in the marketing phase, so it is critical to ensure that your school tour “closes the deal”. I covered some steps on improving your school tour in this article and I would encourage you to read it.
However, sometimes you are too close to the school tour. Or you would benefit from an external perspective on ways to improve your school tour. If this sounds like you, Bright Minds Marketing offers a “Secret Shopper” service for schools where we audit your school tour and make recommendations on how to improve it. If you would like to talk to us about doing a secret shopper experience, please contact us here.
One of the most critical components in the school tour process is recognizing that it doesn’t end when the prospective parent walks out the door. Effective follow-up and nurturing to turn a toured family into an enrolled family can easily net you one or two more students a year.
Finally, are you bringing in enough students, but they are leaving? Forcing you every year to recruit more and more students. It is easier to retain a student than to recruit a new one, but retention activities are often an afterthought for most schools.
To improve retention, you must make the onboarding process as easy as possible, ensure that you are delivering on the needs of your parents and regularly survey them to see if they are happy. If you are not regularly surveying your customers to understand their levels of satisfaction, then you will be constantly surprised when they leave your school.
As you can see, there are a lot of different components that go into a successful school enrollment system. There are many places where schools can get better, but by taking a strategic look at your process and operations, you will be able to identify where you are weak and develop an action plan to get better and ultimately to increase enrollment.