Keeping students: it is the underlying goal at all educational institutions. At independent schools, replacing an exiting student with a brand new one means more time, resources, and attention spent. While is it clearly more cost effective to keep students who are already enrolled, over time, creeping attrition rates can also lead to decreased selectivity and a negative cumulative impact on a school’s brand. In our tightening independent school market, ensuring a strong base of returning families is essential.
On a national level, today’s independent school retention picture, while not dire, is not entirely positive. The Enrollment Management Association’s (EMA) 2016 State of the Independent School Admission Industry report found that more than a third (36%) of responding schools experienced an increase in voluntary attrition to some extent over the previous three to five years, and an additional 15% experienced this to a significant or great extent. For individual schools, especially small or struggling schools, even a moderate increase in attrition can impact the bottom line.
Retention strategy is in practice to some degree at all schools—certainly, every positive experience or interaction builds the sense of engagement and value that leads to retention. However, a number of schools, including those interviewed for this article, are taking steps to be more intentional about retention. To activate retention at their schools, they are collecting and analyzing data, building a campus-wide culture of retention, and operationalizing their efforts.
Step 1: Investigate
Collecting and Analyzing Retention Data
Responding to individual retention concerns and getting ahead of broader retention issues requires investigation, i.e., collecting and analyzing data in the context of one’s own school. For the professionals to whom we talked, retentionrelated data includes attrition rate calculations, student-by-student tracking, engagement and exit surveys, and focus groups.
For Ayesha Flaherty, head of enrollment and communications at The Langley School (VA), a retention tracking and forecasting spreadsheet was one important tactical aspect of her school’s retention efforts. The spreadsheet collects detailed information on students identified as retention concerns and is maintained collaboratively with the school’s division heads. Langley’s retention team takes both micro and macro approaches to analyzing this student-bystudent data. They consider how to respond to specific concerns, and they also look for themes. She explains, “We apply the information about individual students to understand broader segment needs that help guide our decisions."
The spreadsheet also helps the team prioritize efforts. It includes a column tracking the likelihood of influencing the family’s decision. Flaherty says, “If there are some people whose decision we are not likely to influence, that might not be the best place to put our resources.” She also says the data help the team evolve strategies by “reflecting backwards on what made a difference.”
The team at Stevenson School (CA) uses email distribution lists to deliver a steady feed of student-specific information to the enrollment management team in advance of their monthly gatherings. Kilian Forgus, director of admission, explains that with this information in hand, the team asks questions such as, “How do we circle the wagons around a particular student? What are the conversations that might be appropriate to have with the parents?” He continues, “The enrollment management team also sits down over the summer and reviews every single student who did not re-enroll and asks, ‘What were the issues? Could we have done more?’”
Laurel Baker Tew, chief enrollment officer and director of admission and financial aid at Viewpoint School (CA), who managed a complex admission data collection and analysis operation at the country's largest private university before coming to independent schools, is a firm believer in using data as part of retention. “In independent schools there needs to be a concerted effort to collect data, centralize data, and operationalize the effort, whether it is between the admission director and the head and division heads, or on a wider scale.” Maintaining student privacy is critical. She explains, “I personally manage our attrition watch list database, as there may be private information about a family’s financial situation or sensitive issues related to a student at risk of not returning."
Tew also believes data from parent exit surveys are key to retention efforts, saying, “If you conduct exit surveys each year, you can then track issues over time and make adjustments.” She recommends that such surveys be done via a neutral third party or platform. “It’s critical to get the truth about why families are leaving, and it's difficult to get a transparent answer when you're doing it yourself. An independent party can better get the real answers,” she asserts.
George Conway, president of Independent Educational Services (IES), suggests another important source of survey data that can help schools stay ahead of retention issues: “A wellcrafted engagement survey, properly analyzed with comparative data, can reveal helpful insights into a school’s culture, which then can be shared with prospective parents and students and help confirm the choice for families already enrolled.”
He continues, “Those survey data can give school leadership a new tool in their efforts to reduce student attrition and increase positive stakeholder engagement with the school.”
At St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (VA), a new focus group effort has provided valuable feedback and intelligence the school is using to improve both admission and retention efforts. Katherine Carbo, director of lower school admission and financial aid, gathered 11 parents who were new to the school. They discussed how they experienced the admission process and the start of the school year, as well as what they appreciated about the admission processes at other schools.
“As we started asking questions, it became very clear what we did well,” she says, “but I really wanted to know what we could do better.” She found out, for example, that parents would have appreciated more information on aptitude testing and more access to parents of older students. They also signaled that the early pick-up time during the first week of school—combined with a back-to-school night the same week—created logistical challenges for working families. The team was able to act on much of this feedback.
Beyond providing data, Carbo sees how this effort can help retention in another way—it deepens parents’ engagement early in their relationship with the school and makes them feel valued even after the admission process has concluded. She is exploring how to make use of focus groups for other purposes and has challenged her colleagues to do the same. In addition, Carbo now has a group of parents on whom she can lean as ambassadors. “I asked them if they would be willing to call a prospective parent and say, ‘I was just in your shoes last year.’ All of them said yes.”
At The Children’s School (TCS) in Georgia, it was the tracking of attrition data that led not only to improved retention numbers but also to a transformational opportunity for the school. The enrollment team started to see a problematic trend in attrition, which had crept up over the previous five to six years. Other local schools had begun changing their entry points for middle school. Families, who worried that their children would not get into these schools if they did not apply earlier, were leaving TCS before its final grade, which at the time was grade six.
Nicole Victor, director of enrollment management, explains that the team wanted to look at this retention issue broadly. The timing corresponded with the start of a strategic planning process at the school. “The visioning committee, made up of parents, alums, administrators, and faculty, took on this strategic issue. We sent every member of the visioning team to different schools in the Atlanta area to get a sense of our place in the market, to determine what value we would add if we ended at fifth or sixth grade, or went to eighth.” In the end, the committee sent the board its recommendation to expand the school to eighth grade. The board, armed with the information gathered by the committee as well as enrollment projections and predictive modeling prepared by Victor’s team, voted in favor of expanding to eighth grade.
The school has seen an uptick in enrollment since the announcement was made. However, Victor knows that her team’s work is not done. They have employed high-touch communication efforts to address ongoing vulnerabilities. “We are looking at each and every family in those grades, fourth through fifth and sixth grades, and we’re aiming to talk with them, be in front of them, leverage our parent body, and figure out how to make sure that our families know what we’re doing and why we're doing it," she says. “We still expect our attrition to be higher than we would like it to be for the next few years, because families have to make a decision. They have to get to know us again.”
Step 2: Motivate
Building a Campus-Wide Culture of Retention from the Top Down
All of the professionals to whom we talked agreed that activating retention requires shared participation and accountability across campus. Support from leadership is key to motivating buy-in from faculty and staff and building a culture of retention. Laurel Baker Tew puts it this way: “I believe retention needs to be culturally integrated in the school, and that message starts with the head. When our head, Mark McKee, joined us two years ago, he made retention a mandate. While we are lucky to have a low attrition rate, we still have to keep track of those students who are coming and going, so we can manage wait lists and budget expectations.”
Ayesha Flaherty agrees, “I think it has to come from the top down. Our head of school was very clear in articulating at all-personnel meetings that retaining students is a priority for all of us. She emphasized the importance of this to our community, and also said the health of our school is dependent upon it. There was that shared accountability.” At first, having the head and the enrollment team focus on retention made some faculty and staff members nervous. But soon it just became part of the conversation at the school. Now, she says, “It’s less of a ‘something’s wrong’ message and more of a ‘game on, everybody’s in.’ We all need to be rowing in the same direction, and we need to be our best at all times.”
Nicole Victor expounds on the importance of faculty and parent ambassadors in retention efforts. “We know that our parents listen to the messages that get delivered from other parents or by the faculty. They buy into what the faculty say, so it is invaluable to know that I can lean on the faculty and say, ‘Here’s what I know about this family, and I know you have a great relationship. Can you pick up the phone or have a conversation with them in the next few weeks about X, Y, and Z?’” She has also worked to motivate an active parent ambassador network. “They started off doing tours and things like that. But then we thought, let’s segment out those parents and think about where their skill sets can best be applied. We have members of that group who are now saying, ‘I want to help with retention. What can I do?’ They are now a generative group, which is amazing.”
As Tew acknowledges, "Faculty can sometimes be skeptical about the ‘retention is everyone’s job’ culture.” But, she says, framing the message differently can change that reaction and motivate faculty to embrace the joint effort. “We remind faculty that retention is not meant to retain all kids, but the right kids. Because our head has made retention part of our culture, every employee understands and embraces their role in retention."
Janis Clark, director of enrollment and financial aid at Collingwood School in Vancouver, British Columbia, keeps open a steady line of communication with faculty and staff throughout the year to keep the collaborative spirit strong. “I always say, ‘We are all in admission. Period. When you’re in the classroom teaching and doing a great job, that is helping retention. When you’re developing those deep and meaningful relationships with our students and their parents, it is helping retention. Similarly, if you’re out at your own child’s soccer match or hockey game, retention is also fostered by speaking positively and knowledgeably to others about our school.'"
Step 3: Activate
Operationalizing Retention Efforts
With data in hand and campus-wide buy-in, schools can put in place processes to centralize and operationalize efforts to strengthen student and family engagement and reduce attrition.
At The Langley School, operationalizing retention efforts has helped Ayesha Flaherty’s team move from being reactive to proactive. When the team formalized this initiative, they started by establishing a retention committee made up of individuals from each division. Together, meeting regularly, they conducted a family-by-family review. Flaherty describes the effort: “We started to look at who is happy and why they are happy, who is loyal and what makes them loyal, and where there is some dissatisfaction from a specific student or family and why.” From there, the team identified segmented concerns.
With processes in place, the team has become more proactive over time, and its efforts have been strengthened by a solid foundation of data, such as that from parent surveys conducted every two years. She says, “By year two we were able to identify the segmented issues and ask, ‘How can we get even further ahead of them? What are the things that we need to build into the curriculum or with our teachers?’” Now, she says, retention has “become much more a part of the culture and how we do things. We’re noticing issues and trends and are communicating about them before they’re even raised by a parent.”
An annual cross-team strategic gathering serves as a way to operationalize retention efforts at Stevenson School. Kilian Forgus explains, “We meet at the very beginning of the school year—the two division heads, our director of communications, and me. We lay out the strategy for the year, the timeline, and what the communications are going to look like.” This plan has resulted in a series of events throughout the year that help strengthen engagement, especially at the school’s key transition point, from eighth to ninth grade. Competition from a local public high school, the significant tuition increase between these two grades, and the separate location of the high school campus had contributed to attrition rates that were higher than in other grades.
Forgus explains that above all, his team's retention efforts are meant to be individualized and student-centered. Their goal is to help the kids see that this other campus is still their school, where they are known, yet it is also a place for growth. A series of carefully timed in-person events start at the beginning of eighth grade. A “burrito bash” peer-to-peer event on the high school campus is followed by an opportunity to spend a day there. On this carefully scheduled day, trained student hosts lead eighth graders to classes and activities chosen to reflect their individual interests and to answer questions they have asked in a pre-event survey. At a parent event, an hour of power mingling is guided by a “dance card” that suggests which teachers or administrators each parent should talk to, based on the student’s specific interests. This comprehensive and coordinated program has resulted in improved retention rates.
When Janis Clark began her admission role at Collingwood School, she started by digging into enrollment data. She quickly confirmed that the school suffered its highest attrition rate in the transition from seventh to eighth grade, which—like the transition described at Stevenson—included a move to a separate, larger location called the Morven campus. Clark states, “There was no thought-out program of transition and orientation, or efforts to help the students demystify what high school would be like.” In response, her team, along with the head of campus and heads of house, put in place a program called “Move Up To Morven.” It’s a two-hour, early evening, after-school event for seventh graders and their parents that includes a number of pre-arranged activities such as an introduction to the course selection process; campus tours with Morven admission ambassadors; a robotics demonstration; exposure to service opportunities and the Explore outdoor education program; and band, choir, and dance performances. “We’re basically opening up the Morven campus and enabling our grade sevens and their parents to experience firsthand the opportunities that await them in grade eight and beyond."
This event is followed up by several additional opportunities for students to go to the Morven campus for concerts and events, including a culminating “draft,” where the students are festively drafted into one of six “houses.” Prior to the start of school in September, a separate grade 8 orientation day prepares the school's old grade 7s for the challenges and rewards awaiting them on the Morven campus. This student-centered buildup throughout the year helps the kids see the new campus as their own. The result is improved retention rates at this key transition point. Clark says, "We were losing, on average, 18 students at the end of grade seven. Following the inception of this event, we lost only three, increasing our retention rate by 19%."
The carefully planned, student-centered, retention-focused events at Collingwood and Stevenson require more than campus-wide collaboration to be successful. They also exemplify the importance of the personal touch. As data in the EMA parent survey reports The Ride to Independent Schools (2014 and 2017) quantify, that personal touch and exceptional customer service is key to what draws families to choose an independent school… and to stay there.
This includes working to remove obstacles in the re-enrollment process. The team at Stevenson has done away with placement testing for eighth graders. They do not require a deposit each year—instead they hold a family’s initial deposit from matriculation in escrow. They are also evaluating the benefits and risks of becoming an “evergreen” school. Finally, they are transparent about a significant tuition increase between eighth and ninth grade, and invite conversation about financing options. Forgus says, “We send out a communication to all eighth grade families. If they’re on financial aid, we let them know that we’re going to work with them to adjust awards appropriately based upon our tuition increase. We also tell them that if they have questions or concerns about the tuition increase, and they’re not currently receiving financial aid, we’ll invite that conversation as well.”
Timing Is Everything
Finally, when it comes to activating retention, timing is key. Ayesha Flaherty says her team has learned to ask teachers to keep a pulse on individual retention concerns early in the year. “When we do re-enrollment in February, it’s too late,” she says. “Before, we were trying to influence decisions in the January timeline. Now we’re thinking about that in September or in August, if not even earlier.”
Kilian Forgus agrees, “We do retention programming deliberately within the first two months of the school year.”
As for timing, though, Flaherty also reminds us that retention efforts never really end. “You can never say, ‘Check. Got that retention thing done.’ It never stops. It’s just an ongoing area to think about and put energy into."
Ben Douglass, director of admission at Saint James School (MD), echoes this sentiment in “Keep Your Numbers Up: Ensuring Attrition Doesn’t Sabotage Your Yield” (The Yield, Spring 2016): “While we don’t actually work 365 days a year, any boarding school employee needs to constantly have the students and their well-being in mind. That late-night review session? Helps retention. Hanging out with students even on your 'off' days? Helps retention. Calling a student on her birthday in July? Helps retention. The fact is that our students, and their families by proxy, will look back and remember the time they spent with faculty and friends and not ‘the school.’ As Dave Erdmann, longtime independent and college admission guru and inspiration for the Erdmann Institute, loved to say, ‘They will not remember what you said, they’ll remember how you made them feel.’”
How Does Your Attrition Rate Compare?
NAIS Facts at a Glance 2016-17 reports an average student attrition rate for all schools at 9.46%
The way in which you calculate attrition is directly tied to the question you seek to answer. Calculating voluntary attrition gets at issues related to brand, student experience/engagement, and perhaps even affordability. Calculating involuntary attrition gets at issues related to discipline and fit and possibly the admission selection process. Tracking trends in overall attrition (both voluntary and involuntary) is useful for making long-term budget projections. It is important to note that the NAIS attrition metric—useful for benchmarking your school against others—calculates voluntary attrition.