Using the Enrollment Management Spectrum to Drive Success – Three Brutal Facts

May 31, 2018 Heather Hoerle

In recent speaking engagements, I have been asked by more than one head of school about the necessity of implementing a full enrollment management system. “Why can’t we just build a better admission team?” “Isn’t a commitment to a bigger advancement office enough?” “We are a completely tuition driven small school—how can we afford to take on the full EM focus that you recommend?”  These are fair questions, particularly from those seeking greater efficiencies and cost containment in their schools. I think it is fundamentally shortsighted for leaders in a declining* industry not to put resources towards their biggest revenue line item.  (*40% of NAIS independent schools are experiencing declining enrollments. Source: NAIS Trendbook 2017)  Even in independent schools with strong demand, there’s significant opportunity for improving alignment between enrollment management and the other key revenue managers (advancement, finance/business). I’ve seen that when all revenue-focused offices are working together strategically, there’s no better technique for long term enrollment success. Let me explain:  

NBOAchartBrutal Fact #1:  Independent schools are heavily reliant on tuition income to fund operations.  In the graphic, left, the National Business Officers Association provides clarity on the independent school community’s growing dependence on tuition.  Who in your school ensures the blue section of this pie chart is delivered? In most schools the answer is the admission director. (Note: While teachers contribute to student and family satisfaction, they are not asked to fill empty seats if retention metrics aren’t met. It is critically important that your administrators understand their responsibilities to your school’s bottom line.) 


Brutal Fact #2:  In most independent schools, enrollment management drivers are not yet well integrated. Last year, EMA issued What Every Head Needs to Know about Enrollment Management, including the chart, right, that illustrates all of the levers that should be used to understand and drive enrollment success. Traditionally, independent schools have focused on only one (recruitment and selection of new students); in 2018, focusing on a single method to meet enrollment targets is perilous!  Don Hossler, senior scholar at USC’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice, explains the concept of enrollment management in this way: “It is a system which is informed by research on demographic trends, how parents make enrollment decisions, price sensitivity, and the factors that influence student retention.  An inclusive EM approach moves beyond simply hitting an enrollment or budget target to embracing the full journey of a student throughout their time with your school.”  Today’s school leaders must not only work harder to recruit new students, they must also ensure parent and student satisfaction; promote the value of their school brand and educational program; maximize market trends; realize mission through school community composition; set clear tuition, discounting, and financial aid  strategies; and see that each student’s journey produces desired and intended outcomes. In most schools, these concerns are being managed and monitored, yet rarely are these areas well integrated, with clear strategy across divisions.

Brutal Fact #3: The customer is changing.  For some time, EMA has heard from school leaders that the “independent school customer is changing.” Our latest special report 2017 The Ride to Independent Schools makes clear just how much this adage is true!  Over 2,700 parents answered our survey, offering feedback about their independent school admission experience.  Here’s what they said: 

  1. Our admission process is anxiety producing and too cumbersome (they want schools to work together to streamline systems and they want a common application!)
  2. They want more transparency about what is needed to “get in” (average test scores, average GPA of accepted students)
  3. Some have trouble perceiving any significant difference between their public school and private school options
  4. While parents are driven to consider private schools because of perceived academic rigor, they also want schools that will mold the moral character of their child and care about their child’s social/emotional health
  5. Prospective families want more, more, more (time in the classroom, time with an admission officer, information about each school’s unique programs) before they commit tuition dollars.

In his best-selling book Good to Great, author and researcher Jim Collins says “brutal facts” must be confronted to encourage productive change. He also reminds institutions to realize that they can and will prevail over them if disciplined to confront reality and build a plan towards improvements.  It’s clear that our market is changing and that our community’s reliance on tuition is becoming even more pronounced. It’s also clear that by using every lever available to you from the Enrollment Management Spectrum to integrate your strategies, your school has a strong opportunity to prevail over these new challenges and win new customers by meeting their emerging needs. 

Here’s to a deepened industry commitment to the enrollment management spectrum. EMA is here to help your school to achieve long lasting enrollment success and we look forward to continued conversation to that end.

About the Author

Heather Hoerle

Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer

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