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

June 3, 2020 Hans Mundahl

Send a teacher and some students into a classroom and watch what happens. The teacher walks to the front of the room and remains standing while the students sit, possibly jockeying for a seat at the back of the room. The fundamental rules of school have changed so little since we left the one room schoolhouse in favor of the industrial model that they don’t need to be explained to the people playing the game.

But even while schools continue to batch children by age, group knowledge into silos, and organize the calendar around the harvest, the world outside has changed dramatically.

I can’t remember the last time I bought a book in a bookstore, banked in a bank or hailed a ride by waving my arms at a passing vehicle.

Many schools are creating innovative programs that upend the traditional models of teaching and learning. No longer are the ideas of 1:1 or BYOD, project and placed based, maker spaces and flipped teaching, practica and internships, off-campus learning opportunities and travel programs, or competency based assessment radical and unproven ideas. Schools have a menu of options to craft an intentional and measurable program grounded in their fundamental beliefs about what is important.

Just as schools are creating innovative academic programs, so too must they craft innovative enrollment programs. Programs grounded in a simple truth: the independent school customer has changed.

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.

There are fewer and fewer families today for whom independent school is assumed. There are probably many factors impacting this.

  • The rising cost of tuition is causing families to ask fundamental questions about value: why should I spend this much? What will I get back for my investment?
  • In many areas families have more choice than ever before. Certainly families could always move to a desirable school district, and new options such as charter schools, micro-schools, or niche independent schools are making ‘all things to all people’ schools concerned
  • Families used to high engagement in their child’s lives are more than willing to transport their kids to club soccer, hire an independent college counselor, or customize their child’s experience in other ways. What then is the value ‘all-inclusive’ independent schools offer?

The result is that families are putting more pressure on the admission office. Prospective families want more opportunities to interact with current students, more information about academic programs, more opportunities to visit classes, more opportunities to interact with teachers. More more more. In short families want a customized admission experience, just as they want a customized school experience for their children.

At the same time families report a high level of anxiety about the admission process. When I was a head of school we had a family in the admission process one year ultimately decide to wait to enroll in our school. The next year when we no longer had room in the class the family was in tears. Applying to independent school is not only a stressful process for families and students, it’s also a difficult one. Most schools would probably say they would love to have more students in their funnel. Yet we continue to make it difficult to apply to our schools. 

In a recent EMA survey we found nearly half of families said applying to independent schools was ‘more work than expected’ and a quarter of those families dropped schools from their list due to the amount of application time required! Honestly I’m not surprised at this result. Have you ever tried to inquire to your school? Here’s a little experiment. The next time you’re waiting to pick up your child from soccer practice or violin lessons or whatever go ahead and try to inquire to your own school. But you have to do it on your phone, and you have to get it done before your child gets in your car. How long did it take? Did you get it done? Now do it five more times for the five other schools your child might want to apply to.

It’s little wonder that families used to summoning a ride from their phone are put off by our application process... and we haven’t even reached the financial aid process yet.

Millennial parents have expectations unique to their generation: Millennial parents report that they expect innovation, that traditional advertisements usually bore them, but that they would like it if brands surprised them and also feel their child is unique. Major life milestones are being impacted by a desire for things that feel on-of-a-kind. 

Schools need to impress these families by crafting and executing a highly personalized student recruitment process. How do we do that? There are many enrollment management and marketing models that can scale depending on the size of the funnel and school resources:

  • Taking an enrollment management approach rather than a traditional admission approach is a good start.
  • A head who views herself as the Chief Enrollment Evangelist is important both to drive sensible strategic engagement at the board level and also to ensure that each adult in the community sees themselves as members of the recruitment and retention team.
  • Inbound marketing continues to be an underused strategy in schools: the long-tail of compelling and authentic content focused on the needs of families and students is a lead generation engine that once it gets spun up continues to reap rewards.
  • Schools who give up the notion that they have to be all things to all people and who take the bold and courageous step to stand for their values, identify a need and develop programs to fill that need, won’t find themselves broadly desirable, but will find themselves irresistible to the right families.

That’s something that Professor Americus Reed at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania broke down for us back in Episode 28 of the Enrollment Spectrum Podcast.

That’s a lot to think about. Sometimes it’s hard to get started on a journey that seems long, hard, and complicated. But maybe the most important thing is to take the first step. 

Let me ask you this question: how did you go about making the decision to buy your house? Was it a purely financial decision regarding the price and your future ROI when you sell? Or did you have a conversation about which city, neighborhood, and home reflects your personality, dreams, and values? My guess is your experience was some combination of these things. And if you - in any way - found home buying stressful then I think we’ve perfectly framed what it’s like to apply to independent school. Hopefully when you bought your home you had the benefit of a great real estate agent, someone who really go to know you before they showed you any homes.

And maybe that’s the first step we need to take: to seek to understand the families who do well at our school, to understand their expectations, pain points, hopes, and dreams. Then we can serve them better in the enrollment process.

Thanks for listening to episode three of EMA’s Head of School Podcast. In episode five we’ll look at the role of price in enrollment management.

  • 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: “What kinds of families do best at our school? What families would we like to serve better? What do families want from the enrollment process?”

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: The Role of Price [S1.E5]
Head of School Podcast: The Role of Price [S1.E5]

What every head needs to know about enrollment management.

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

What every head needs to know about enrollment management.