Head of School Podcast: How the Admission Funnel Has Changed [S1.E3]

June 3, 2020 Hans Mundahl

I’ve always been annoyed by the word ‘just.’ Back when I was an Outward Bound instructor one of my jobs was to take kids rock climbing. As I watched kids work their way up a rock face I became fascinated not only by their process up on the wall but also with the quality of the feedback they were getting from the ground. The shouted advice fell into three categories:

  • First of all there was the tactical advice: move your left foot to the hold a little higher… that kind of thing.
  • Then there was the inspirational: ‘you’ve got this!’
  • Finally there were the ‘justs’: Just… go up!

Independent school boards can often provide feedback to enrollment professionals that falls into these three buckets as well. On the tactical side boards might want to see an advertisement in a particular magazine, or more events on campus. Or maybe they offer inspirational words of encouragement… (though come to think of it if your board offers you inspirational words of encouragement I’d like to hear about it).

And then there are the JUSTS: Just hold more open houses, Just get more full pay kids, Just travel more.

For schools to more effectively address our evolving enrollment landscape they need to have a firm understanding of the admission funnel… and how it’s been changing in the last few years.

Welcome to EMA’s Head of School Podcast: where we cover the most important enrollment management topics tailored for heads of school. In every episode we’ll cover a couple of high level topics along with a question or reflection you can bring back to your team. I’m your host (and recovering head of school) Hans Mundahl. Let’s get started.

The Admission Funnel is essentially a sales model and was created for a single purpose - to help schools make predictions about the future. The model was first introduced in the 1970’s as a way of looking at the recruitment and admission process on a systemic level. Basically there are more people at the top of the funnel and as folks move through the process the funnel narrows because families (aka prospects) fall out. Maybe they decide not to continue, or the school counsels the prospects out due to poor fit.

The traditional funnel has:

  • Leads at the top - folks who are interested in the school but who haven’t yet reached out
  • Once they reach out to the school - back in the day it was to request information by mail - these prospects become ‘inquiries’
  • Inquiries complete certain activities like attending an event, or getting a tour and finally submit all of their materials - boom the school just got an applicant.
  • The school only accepts some of the applicants though (so the funnel narrows again)
  • And a family might get multiple accepts but they can only select one, so the funnel narrows one last time when the family accepts the offer of enrollment.

The predictive nature of the traditional funnel is handy because the school can look back and say - if this year is like last year and the year before that then if we have this many inquires we should get that many applicants which will yield into this many accepts and enrolls.

This model worked pretty well in a static environment with lots of families. Today we are experiencing a number of factors that make using a traditional funnel model to make accurate predictions about the future more difficult.

  • We are in the middle of a population downturn - so there just aren’t as many families on the top of the funnel as there were before
  • The middle class is shrinking at the same time as independent school tuition is rising much faster than the rate of inflation
  • There is this new thing called Google - where families go to get information rather than from you or your materials. And with social media and ranking sites your school website isn’t even the canonical source of information it once was.

Many schools noticed this the first time when they had families visit campus or submit an application without any prior contact. Back in the day we used to call these folks ‘stealth-applicants’ but nowadays I think we need to call folks who use technology to skip a step in the funnel something else… how about ‘applicants.’ Parents read reviews online and check out the homepage, kids go on social media or watch a video and make a decision about whether or not to visit campus.

Another thing the traditional funnel doesn’t take into consideration is retention. 

David Darby and Heather Avery at Lakefield College School talk about how important it was for their head of school Anne-Marie Kee to put retention front and center from the beginning of the year.

Online application software often makes it very easy for a family to take the same application and send it to multiple schools. And that means schools need to get over vanity metrics. Exclusivity or the perception of exclusivity isn’t helpful. Remember… the funnel was developed to predict the future, not make it seem like you accept 1% of applicants. It would actually be pretty easy for many schools to front load a ton of poorly suited candidates into the top of the funnel just so they could decline them and drive down their accept rate. But is that a useful way for enrollment directors to spend their time? A waitlist number also provides little insight on a school’s market demand by mission-appropriate or tuition-capable students.

The fact is that most schools are NOT highly selective and even in higher ed (despite the hype to the contrary) most colleges and universities accept the majority of applicants. We talked about this back in episode one - with declining demographics of school-aged children, what does selectivity even mean if there are too many independent school seats in the market?

Here are a couple of things you can do to improve the predictive accuracy of your admission funnel:
Stop worrying about increasing your applicants and decreasing your accepts (vanity metrics are just that… vain).

  • Instead seek to understand your funnel better, what metrics do you have about folks at the top of your funnel? I’m looking at you Google Analytics!
  • Where do you drop people in the funnel? Is your funnel more of a vase with pinches in it or more of a cylinder? Maybe you do need more prospects in the top if you tend to keep folks all the way through. Or maybe you are dropping families when it comes to price and you can do a better job communicating your financial aid process or increase the amount of money you give in aid.
  • Rethink your process as one that is designed to work out a way to say yes to a family, rather than no.
  • Consider how you tell the story of your numbers, that might be the only thing that can counter the ‘exclusivity’ narrative. Communicate your story to your board as well as to your families.
  • Or here’s a new metric that higher ed is looking at: your ‘draw rate’ which is defined as the yield rate divided by the admit rate.

Thanks for listening to episode three of EMA’s Head of School Podcast. In episode four we’ll be taking a look how the independent school applicant has changed. 

  • Today’s episode is based on EMA’s special report What Every Head Needs to Know About Enrollment Management. You can find the full report at www.enrollment.org. 
  • This episode was produced by me, Hans Mundahl, with help from Peter Baron.
  • Check out our other show The Enrollment Management Spectrum Podcast for long-form interviews with scholars, practitioners, and experts in the enrollment management industry. 

Before we close here is a question you can explore with your team: “How do you define the steps in your enrollment funnel? Are they helpful in making predictions?”

Thanks and I hope you have the chance to be creative today.

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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Previous Podcast
Head of School Podcast: How the Customer Has Changed [S1.E4]
Head of School Podcast: How the Customer Has Changed [S1.E4]

What every head needs to know about enrollment management.

Next Podcast
Head of School Podcast: What Is Enrollment Management [S1.E2]
Head of School Podcast: What Is Enrollment Management [S1.E2]

What every head needs to know about enrollment management.