Retention of Current Students

March 30, 2022 Hans Mundahl

In my house, we use our Disney+ subscription nearly every night. My son and I have watched every Marvel movie twice, our daughter loves the musicals, and my wife and I have enjoyed going back to the classics. While both kids are signed into the account on their own personal devices, something new frequently comes out that we can enjoy together as a family. On the other hand, I recently noticed that we still had a subscription to CBS All Access. I’m sure I had a good reason for subscribing to that at some point, but I couldn’t remember what it was.

Why am I writing about video streaming services in an article on independent school enrollment management? Think about the family who recently switched to your school for a particular feature or benefit. Perhaps you were open for in-person instruction when other schools were online. Maybe their child was falling behind in math and you have a strong academic support program. Now a year or two has gone by. Will these families stay with you? Will they continue to pay for a premium product when a similar experience might be available at a lower price? Or to put it another way, are you Disney+ or are you CBS All Access?

We recently discussed the first lever in The Strategic Enrollment Management Spectrum, Recruitment & Selection of New Students, which makes up many of the core tasks of an enrollment department. The connection between recruitment and retention is important. When students tend to stay at the school until graduation, the enrollment office needs to recruit fewer students to fill chairs that become empty due to attrition.

The Enrollment Management Spectrum defines retention of current students very simply: students who enroll at the school tend to stay at the school. 

But in practice, a strategic approach to retention can be anything but simple.

We often say that taking a strategic approach to enrollment management isn’t just good for a school’s bottom line, it’s also good for the school. This maxim might be most clear when looking at retention. Consider two schools that both have full enrollment every year. At the first school, students tend to stay until graduation and new students join certain classes at strategic times. At the second school, students frequently depart after one or two years and new students are constantly backfilled to meet enrollment goals. Where would you rather teach? Where would you rather send your child?

Certainly, retention is important, but it can also be difficult. Recent data shows that families are not only more willing to depart a school that isn’t meeting their needs but also are in fact doing so. In a survey of close to 3,000 families who began their search for independent schools prior to the start of the pandemic, EMA’s Ride to Independent Schools report found that 65% of parents were actively searching for an independent school even though their child wasn’t in the last year at their current school. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) found that during the same time, its more than 1,200 schools reported an average attrition rate of more than 12%. These trends have perhaps been exacerbated by COVID-19 but generational changes in parents have been driving this change for at least the last ten years. And schools are struggling to strategically respond to this problem. In the fall of 2021, EMA found that only 34% of schools had a formal retention committee. While that was up slightly from the last time we asked the question, it should come as no surprise that attrition will continue to climb if most schools aren’t able to respond strategically.

An important first step is creating a cross-functional team tasked with identifying students who are considering departing then developing reactive strategies to keep those students enrolled. This retention committee might solicit input from faculty via an anonymous Google form about students they’re worried about. They might even create a tracker to identify particular divisions or areas of the school program to focus on. Developing proactive strategies to prove the value of the family’s investment is also beneficial. For example, sharing alumni stories in the parent newsletter and reeducating families about the school at certain points are ways to demonstrate the outcome of their investment. Simply ensuring that families hear from their child’s advisor frequently during the year is a great way to remind parents that you’re working hard for them. One head of school carved out time during faculty meetings for teachers to send “sunshine” emails to their students. These brief messages contain good news or a kind observation about the student that grants the family a bit of student-centered sunshine in their day. What a great use of faculty time and a great way to center the whole community around retention.

Many schools tell us they are too engaged with the day-to-day tasks of running a school in a time of COVID-19 to fully focus on retention work. If that sounds familiar we recommend two strategies. First of all, try calculating your school’s attrition rate over the last five years and comparing it to a benchmark. This will give you a sense of how you are doing compared to other schools like you. Maybe you’ll find you’re doing great and that your attrition is below the benchmark. If that’s the case, take a breather for a bit. Circle back to your retention efforts when you have a bit more time and energy to spare. Not happy with the results from your benchmark analysis? Try using the time you already have on the calendar to focus on retention:

  • Carve out time at the next faculty meeting for teachers to communicate good news to families
  • Use your next admin meeting to discuss students you’re worried about not returning
  • Use your next all-in meeting to share your retention numbers
  • Remind your support staff they play a valuable role in helping students feel welcome
  • Invest in advisory time and provide resources for this critical link in the school / family communication chain

Have you ever had a family decide not to reenroll and afterward, you begin to hear stories from teachers, advisors, support staff, and coaches? Various folks within the school knew the family was unhappy and was thinking about not returning but unfortunately, there wasn’t a way to uncover the complete picture. And without the complete picture, it was impossible to coordinate efforts to keep the family enrolled. If that’s ever happened at your school then you’re ready to take a strategic approach to retention!

It took more than a little while (and a few web searches) but eventually, I figured out how to unsubscribe from CBS All Access. Our family simply hadn’t found enough value to justify the cost. Hiding the “cancel” button shouldn’t be the cornerstone of your streaming service reenrollment strategy. We’re going to keep writing articles about the Enrollment Management Spectrum, but that’s going to have to wait until after tonight. We’re going to watch Ironman.

About the Author

Hans Mundahl

Hans Mundahl is the Director of Professional Development at EMA. He has been an educator since 1995 when he first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then Hans has done just about every job possible at an independent school from teacher to administrator. Most recently Hans was the head of school at a K-8 day school in central New Hampshire. Hans’s spare time is usually spent with his family but he is also passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment.

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