Do You Want to Build Your School’s Enrollment?

As we recall the tenth anniversary of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, let’s be mindful of the blessings we’ve been given, and remember that blessings of abundance are given to be shared.

Since most of the nation is back in school, or will be back in session next week, perhaps some of you are surprised that there aren’t as many children in your school as you expected there would be.  Or, maybe some of aren’t surprised.  Maybe some of you are not only surprised, but disappointed.

There are, believe it or not, some faith-based and private schools that are seeing increases in enrollment!  The “secrets”?  There really are none – but the “techniques” have nothing to do with the things most school leaders think are marketable qualities about their school!

Here are the three things that most marketing committees, school and Church leaders and school boards put in their brochures – faith-based values, academic achievement, and safe learning environments.  Unfortunately, those are expectations regarding your school.  It would be like saying, “This newly designed 2016 CUV (compact utility vehicle) has an engine, a steering wheel and seat belts, and this really cool feature that makes go backwards!”  Further, if your current members of your parent community (please note that I did not say “students”) fail to experience evidence of these expectations, the potential for withdrawing their children from your school is increased significantly.  Therefore, they’re not enrollment builders, but they can either be enrollment “maintainers” or “drains.

So what’s going to get parents “in the door?”  Three things – referrals, pre-experiential engagement, and personal invitations.  I’ll be covering those in upcoming Marketing Matters, but know that they all have a basis in the satisfaction level of your current parents.  For now, let’s prepare for mindset change by recalling the words of Deuteronomy 30:19 – “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!”

While we like to think that there’s a lot of “gray” area today, when we look at the REALLY big picture, there are two choices – Heaven or Hell; good or evil; right or wrong.  Applying this to the “top level” of decisions about our schools, it’s either grow them, or close them.  Many schools have not yet reached the level where they can simply “maintain” for sustainability.  That’s the “goal” stage on a scale that begins with “Fundraising” and progresses through “Development,” “Advancement” and “Growth” before reaching “Sustainability.”

With that in mind, let’s look at what might be happening right now in your school.  If there is room in your classes for another child or two without adding an extra teacher, please consider this scenario by putting yourself in a parent’s place.

A returning parent comes to you wanting to enroll their child, but they cannot afford the full cost of tuition. Do you:

  1. a) tell them there is no financial aid remaining, so they’ll have to pay the full amount, or else they can’t attend, or;
  2. b) tell them that they can apply for aid, but since it’s after the deadline, you will have to see what kind of funds are available, and what kind of aid package you can put together for them. Then give them a financial aid application, as well as take their application for their child to be enrolled.

Which one is more likely to build your enrollment?  Let’s go a little further –

A returning parent comes to you as above, but has already applied for financial aid – they just never completed their enrollment application. Do you:

  1. a) tell them there is no financial aid remaining, so they’ll have to pay the full amount, or else they can’t attend.
  2. b) tell them that since it’s after the financial aid deadline, and aid is distributed on a first-come, first served basis after that, you will have to see what kind of aid is still available so that you can put a package together for them.

Which one is more likely to build your enrollment?  One more –

new parent comes to you who cannot afford the full cost of tuition (and, in most schools, transfer students should be considered as new students) Do you:

  1. a) tell them there is no financial aid remaining, so they’ll have to pay the full amount, or else they can’t attend.
  2. b) tell them that since it’s after the financial aid deadline, and aid is distributed on a first-come, first served basis after that, you will have to see what kind of funds are available, and what kind of aid package you can put together for them. Then give them a financial aid application, as well as take their application to be enrolled.

If you’ve answered (b) to all three, you’ve chosen correctly. (a) responses do nothing to generate enthusiasm about your school. (b) responses show that you are willing to accept their child, if application criteria are met.  Also remember that as of July 1, 2005 (yes, that was 10 years ago), admission to your school is not a “registration” process.  It became an “application” process.  With IDEIA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act) criteria in place, “registration” infers “acceptance.”  You want to be sure that you are able to provide accommodation to children that may have physical or other special needs.  Once you accept them (that is, enroll them), you must provide accommodation.  A recent news item speaks to a faith-based school in San Antonio, Texas that is currently dealing with this very issue.  Accepting the child assumes your school is prepared to provide accommodation.

What seems to get us into trouble is when a parent wants an answer immediately because school is starting the next week, or has already started.  If we respond immediately to the demand, then we are acting as an educator would want a student to respond – immediately, with the correct answer.  Parents, as members of Generation X, want an answer to every question right away, in the spirit of instant gratification.  To delay an answer because other factors need to be considered could evoke several parental responses, such as, “Why can’t you give me an answer now?”  “What’s wrong with my child that you don’t want them in the school?”  “Why don’t you have this information at your fingertips?”  “Why should I have complete this paperwork?  I don’t have time, and school starts TODAY!”

Note there is sometimes no acknowledgement on the part of the parent that they should have begun this process several months ago.

Giving parents an application for enrollment AND an application for financial aid gives you the time necessary to consider the criteria necessary for making an informed decision.  Besides, if a parent treats you like that when their child is not in the school, what will they be like when their child is a part of your enrollment, and that parent is a part of your school’s community?

If you don’t have a third-party financial aid process that will process applications year-round and provide you with some top-line metrics right away, then it might be time to evaluate if your processes foster or hinder the progress you need to make toward the goals you’ve set for your school.  If your third-party assessment company tells parents what kind of aid they should qualify for, only processes information at certain times of the year, or allows parents to enter data into a form on a Web site and let’s them know what they can expect to pay, all those things do nothing to help build your school’s enrollment.  If your school is filled to the gills, they can help screen out folks – but most of the schools I have come into contact with are still trying to fill every desk.

Standing firm to the “Let’s see what can put together for you” is a completely different mindset than “There is no more financial aid.” First, the term “let’s” means this is a “group” thing.  It’s a partnership.  It’s not, “You need to do this for me.”  Instead, let “us” see what potentials exist.  Second, the term “put together” means this isn’t just a process of finding money and giving to a family.  Funds come from different sources, and a financial aid package may need to be creatively developed.  Third, “for you” acknowledges your desire to treat this parent as an individual with a customized aid package specific to their unique financial need.

If a parent still demands an answer at that point, then you have been given an ultimatum – give my child aid now or they won’t attend. If that’s the case, then the parent has made the decision for the child…not the school.   The net result might be the same, but at least you’ve been open to the possibility. Asking a returning family to wait for a week or so when you may have waited for them for 5 months sounds like a more than fair trade off.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2010-2015 (Original Publication Date: 20050905)