There’s something exciting about the start of the fall admission season. Students and families are excited to explore their school options and admission teams are ready to welcome them to campus. One fall when I was in admissions, I remember interviewing a student who was a perfect fit for the school. They were a young entrepreneur who had started a small doughnut business and had not only brought a sampling of their wares for us to enjoy but also spoke thoughtfully about the ups and downs of starting a business as a teenager.
Recruitment and selection of new students are the bread and butter of the enrollment office. Whether you have more than enough qualified future doughnut magnates applying to your school or you work until November to hit your numbers, this work is critical to the success of your institution.
The Enrollment Management Spectrum defines Recruitment & Selection of New Students in this way:
The school attracts families, stewards them through the application process, and has systems to determine mission appropriateness and fit.
What does this look like in practice?
There are many tools at the disposal of the enrollment office to attract new families to the school. School fairs, social media, open houses, feeder schools, consultants, and travel to select cities and countries all serve to drive engagement with the school’s website and convert interested families into applicants.
Once families have engaged with the school, they can be stewarded through the enrollment process. Families may request more information, attend an event, and hopefully visit campus for a tour and interview before they finally complete their application. Recent generational shifts have disrupted this traditional funnel, however. GenX parents in their 40s and 50s are now the dominant age cohort shopping for independent schools. Their habit of researching major purchases online before shopping in person has led to the rise of the stealth applicant. These families may not be in touch with the school until relatively late in the enrollment process. But by the time they do make contact, they are highly qualified leads.
Once a family has completed their applications, schools approach the task of deciding who is a good fit for acceptance in different ways.
Some schools have more applicants than space. These schools use the interview, transcript, teacher recommendations, standardized assessments, and other metrics to select the strongest applicants from a large pool. Individual candidate characteristics are important as is the overall shape of the class and the school. Financial aid is thoughtfully and strategically used to help the school achieve its mission by helping ensure that a diverse range of students is able to attend across a number of possible cohorts including gender, race, socio-economic background, academic strengths, artistic and athletic interests, and others.
Many schools actively work to nurture an adequate pool of candidates and may not fill the school or hit net tuition revenue targets until after the start of the school year. These schools use the same interviews, transcripts, assessments, and other tools but must make a different determination. Rather than continuously narrow the lens toward a select group of students from a large pool, these schools must determine which students would be an appropriate fit for the academic and co-curricular program. They do this by setting a bar for qualification, researching past successful students as a reference, and taking smart chances on kids. Financial aid is thoughtfully and strategically used to discount the school’s tuition to make the school more accessible to more families and thereby filling seats.
When it comes to this core work of the enrollment process, David Baker, Director of Enrollment Management at St. Marks School in Texas and faculty at EMA’s Admission Training Institute, frames it this way:
“In many schools, we read files for qualifications. In other words, does the student get over the bar of certain parameters that are critical for success at the school? With too few students in the pool, we expand the criteria but also consider which aspects are ‘non-negotiable’ and take a whole school view. I’d rather explain to one family why we didn’t admit their child than to the whole school why we did.”
Recruiting and selecting students is the core work of the admission office. This work has also been disrupted in recent years by changing parent expectations, an increase in grade inflation, COVID-19, increased awareness of racial injustice, and other factors. We can see that all seven aspects of the Enrollment Management Spectrum contribute to this work. When retention is high, tuition is reasonable, and students graduate with the skills and values promised by the mission, the work of recruiting students is easier. We’ll explore each of these areas in future articles.
In case you were wondering how things turned out with that doughnut entrepreneur…When that May came around, we learned they would be enrolling at a different school. We were certainly disappointed. Had we not hustled hard enough? Was there some feature or benefit of the school we hadn’t articulated clearly enough? Although we had lost the opportunity to enroll that particular student, we knew the cycle of reflection and continuous improvement wouldn’t end. We would not only improve the website but also look beyond the admission office to other parts of the school to see how we could all improve to create even more powerful experiences for families. The start of the fall admission season was just a few months away after all and we couldn’t wait to get started.
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