Application deadlines. Financial aid deadlines. Notification deadlines. Deadlines for international students versus U.S.; domestic boarding students versus day students. And finally, the deadline for a family to confirm its decision to join your community.
Deadlines are a touchy topic, to say the least. Some schools believe that common deadlines bring clarity and fairness to the process, while others feel they hinder enrollment. Some schools’ practices are governed by regional consortia, and some schools are part of groups (some as small as three or four schools) agreeing to policies that work for their specific locales.
Following the most critical time of year for independent school enrollment managers, we talked with several admission and industry leaders to explore this controversial topic and to learn how various schools, organizations, and admission leaders navigate the systems in place.
Back to the Beginning
As recalled by Jack Eidam, former dean of admission and financial aid at Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School (PA), the call for common acceptance and parent reply dates started almost 50 years ago. “When I attended The Enrollment Management Association Annual Meetings in the late 60s, it was a hot item for discussion,” he explains. “Heated discussions would last up to two hours—with the high-volume schools squarely behind the idea of releasing decisions and requiring responses in unison. It was back then that the March 10 notification and April 10 family reply dates became a gentleman’s agreement. Keep in mind, this was a time when The Enrollment Management Association Annual Meetings consisted of 30 to 50 people. Therefore, the discussions were not representative of all schools, but they certainly had merit.”
As the The Enrollment Management Association Annual Meeting grew to 100-200 attendees, Eidam said the issue escalated: “As the meeting grew to include less high-volume applicant schools, new arguments arose around rolling decision release dates. The smaller schools and those outside the Northeast corridor saw no reason to delay decisions. Eventually, there was general agreement to abide by the April 10 reply date and schools would declare annually in the SSAT Bulletin of Information whether they would roll admission or abide by the common March 10 decision date.”
Time marched on, and the economy of the 1970s became troubled. Headlines about double-digit inflation were followed by assassinations and disenchantment over the Vietnam War. Exacerbating this trouble was a 33% decline in the school age population. “We had major mountains to climb,” Eidam recalled. “Then the anti-establishment movement entered the mix, and it was like the perfect storm for boarding schools, which were now challenged to provide financial aid to those families still willing to send their children to boarding schools.”
While Eidam recounts that the common dates were established at The Enrollment Management Association Annual Meetings so many decades ago, the issue remains a bit of a gray area nationally for both day and boarding schools. Yet, many of those interviewed for this piece indicated that they adhere to some form of common dates through a consortium or regional association, while others indicated they inherited similar dates from their predecessors.
I've been in boarding schools for more than 17 years, and I've assumed that March 10 for notification and April 10 for enrollment contracts was sacrosanct," says Leo Marshall, director of admission and financial aid at The Webb Schools (CA). "While I know there is no formal agreement in place over all these years, I believe that the common dates work well for all our boarding schools and wouldn't buck the trend and change it."
The Common Date – Friend or Foe?
The push and pull that comes from a free market can be trying and exciting for independent schools enrolling their next class. As NAIS reports, only about 500,000 students are enrolled in independent schools, representing a mere 1% of the school age population of the U.S. Therefore, it is no surprise that the independent school admission process is competitive.
In this competitive environment, many consortia and regional and state associations establish admission deadlines and response dates in an effort to even the playing field and assist families. “The intention is to establish agreed-upon dates that allow admission officers the time to meet with families during the fall and winter, schedule interviews, and review files, and also allow parents and students ample time to consider and weigh their options,” explains Blythe Marsau, director of admission at St. Martin’s Episcopal School (GA) and chairperson of the Atlanta Area Association of Independent Schools (AAAIS). “If we didn’t have this agreement in place, it could become the Wild West, thus raising the anxiety for families.”
David Baker, director of admission and financial aid at St. Mark’s School of Texas (TX), is part of the Independent Schools Admission Association of Dallas (ISAAD) along with 13 other area schools. “Our policy for membership is that schools are members of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest and also NAIS,” Baker explains. “Our intention is to provide families with an apples-to-apples comparison of our group, so it makes sense to have common notification dates.”
Some individuals interviewed, like Dr. Jeff Jackson, president of the Georgia Independent Schools Association (GISA), see both sides. When Jackson served as a director of admission in the competitive market of Macon, Georgia, all schools had rolling admission. He knew that in other areas of the country, schools had common dates Decisions… that led to a feeling of predictability among students, families, and admission directors. “There was a collegial feeling among us that we were doing what was right by the families by providing an open enrollment period in Macon,” he explained. “However, I also saw the way clear deadlines for applications and financial aid forms relieved anxiety for families and allowed schools to be staffed and planned accordingly. But it seemed our system worked well.”
The system in Macon worked well for Jackson until he became head at a new school in the greater Atlanta area. His school was located near two of the more powerful, highly- selective schools in the area. “We were trying to sell our new school to families,” he explains. “We made a decision to join the city association, but it hindered our process as the new kid on the block. We wanted to show families that we could offer earlier admission dates and begin integrating them into our community, even before the school year began. Unfortunately, the common date policies did not work in our favor.”
Jackson’s GISA board chair, John Marshall of Mt. Pisgah School (GA), has mixed feelings on the issue. “Mt. Pisgah is not currently a member of the AAAIS, because we wanted the freedom of rolling admission,” he says. “We thought it would serve our purposes better. We’re now considering rejoining because of the stature of the organization and the professional development offerings from AAAIS. We’re currently weighing the pros and cons.”
Some have called for national associations to take the lead in declaring common dates; however, associations like NAIS and The Enrollment Management Association have been hesitant to impose such blanket restrictions. Stories about schools wriggling away from common date constraints are common. There are stories about schools sending out swag to admitted students prior to the notification date; stories about schools offering admission during the interview; stories about offers of “early decisions” accompanied by requests for immediate commitments and nonrefundable deposits.
“When schools begin to employ strategies like that, while seemingly well intended, to the applicant parents it can look like a move of desperation to get the jump on the competition and that is not good for the school or the independent school industry in general,” expresses Leo Marshall.
Contending with Competing Dates
Each local school market may also face additional issues that complicate the common dates decision. As was reported by interviewees time and again, parochial schools are infamous for moving up application, acceptance, and enrollment dates well ahead of the independent schools in the area. “I personally think—no matter what date you set—the Catholic schools in some regions will keep moving their dates up to stay ahead of the independent schools,” reports one of the admission directors we interviewed. “In fact, I just heard about a Catholic school in a major metropolitan area that sent out acceptances on Friday and required deposits on Monday in order for families to keep the financial aid that was offered. This was one week before the independent schools sent out their notifications.”
Allison Price, director of admission and financial aid at The Tatnall School (DE), contends with the parochial schools in her area on this issue. “Our small, four-school consortium agreed to notification dates in the third week of January and to have all family contracts in by the second week of February, but the local parochial schools are on a December notification schedule,” she says. “Compounding the situation is that the parochial schools have a merit aid component tied to the entrance exam the kids take. Families feel pressured, because if they don’t enroll early they could lose the merit aid.”
When Sarah Jallo, current director of enrollment management at The St. Andrew’s Schools (HI), was at Marymount High School (CA), an independent all-girls Catholic high school in the greater Los Angeles area, she was caught between the Catholic school dates and the dates agreed upon by the Los Angeles Area Independent Schools (LAAIS) consortium, but ultimately she bridged the gap by mailing decisions with the Catholic schools and having the same return date as the LAAIS schools. Jallo explained, “LAAIS abides by a 10-day window between notification dates and reply dates. The policy allowed more predictability with numbers, and everyone played by the same rules. It was great for families as they had all the information at their disposal, and there was no jockeying for families around financial aid. The process was fair and equitable for both sides, but we [at Marymount] also had to address the needs of our shared applicants with the Catholic schools and that was the best way for us to do it.”
Time and Money
Jallo reports even greater complications— not in terms of whether common dates are adhered to, but rather about when those dates occur. The Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS) has common dates, but the dates are much later in the season than in most other regions. “As a small school that is highly tuition dependent, it is really hard to plan and budget for the following year when you don’t know your numbers until mid to late May,” she explains. “This also has the unfortunate side effect of being out of cycle with the hiring season, so if you have to let a teacher go due to downsizing, it puts them at a disadvantage when looking for other work.”
Similar issues affect the distribution of financial aid. Baker’s Dallas group is struggling with how and when to send financial aid decisions. “It’s hard for day schools in Dallas given the large number of applications— some schools are dealing with hundreds of financial aid applicants at a time,” he says. “Some schools determine their currently enrolled student financial aid packages earlier, so that there is clarity about the resources remaining for new students. Handling the volume of applicants in our market, while piecing together the financial aid puzzle, is daunting enough. The last thing we want to do is reach August with unspent financial aid money, but will moving financial aid dates around solve this? We’re not sure.”
While outside the realm of dates, there is another challenging—and often uncomfortable—aspect to enrollment decision making. All admission directors can relate to the inevitable phone call from a board member or alumnus with a personal connection to an applicant, the athletic director seeking a replacement quarterback, or the orchestra director looking to bring in a talented cello player.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had athletic directors and arts program faculty willing to take direction and education from the admission team,” Allison Price shared. She presented at the 2013 The Enrollment Management Association Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on a program she developed while she was at the Derryfield School (NH): “We worked with athletic coaches and others with special interests to understand what we were looking for in transcripts, SSAT scores, and general key points of the application. It was an education campaign for them as well as us. We shared information, cleared up concerns on both sides of the table, and essentially eliminated 90% of the problems.”
Price went so far as to provide the group with the same financial aid workshop she and her team present to families. “We wanted our coaches and faculty to understand the process and the realities of our committee work, and especially the financial aid promises. They learned how many full-need kids we typically could fund per year, so they worked to broaden their messaging to reach families in multiple income brackets in order to enroll as many kids as possible for their program(s).”
Anne Behnke, director of admission at St. Mark’s School (MA), created a similar program with her athletic coaches. “You must open your communication with your athletic director in the same way you would with your head,” she explains. “We meet regularly to discuss who is in the applicant pool, concerns about how many kids are graduating in a particular sport, and any individual coach concerns. Because we work on the relationships, we don’t have rogue coaches offering decisions or financial aid. Of course, we’re still learning and growing in this process, and I certainly don’t want the athletic department to think that the admission office is perfect.”
Among those interviewed, there appear to be no norms surrounding re-enrollment dates. Decisions on when to re-enroll seem to be dependent on school budget cycles —and geared towards to taking the heavy weight off admission teams during application season. However, some schools vary reenrollment dates by certain populations, be it grade level or boarding versus day students.
The policy allowed more predictability with numbers, and everyone played by the same rules. It was great for families as they had all the information at their disposal, and there was no jockeying for families around financial aid.
“We have a couple of different types of re-enrollment deposits and timetables, and providing options has been successful for the school and our parents,” explains John Marshall. “There always are a small handful of families who desire to explore all their options, and while we want them to remain in our community, it would be a disservice to require them to make a decision prematurely. Therefore, we have an early re-enrollment date at which point a small deposit is due. Those families who need more time can take it, but if they choose a later re-enrollment deadline, we require a much larger deposit. This flexibility has been well received by our parents, and we haven’t noticed any difference in retention among those who re-enroll later in the spring.”
Where Admission Meets Anti-Trust
“If a school is removed from a regional group because of lack of adherence to policy, there are potential legal concerns,” explains Debra Wilson, general counsel at NAIS. “If being a member of that group means there is some market advantage like data sharing, more access to schools fairs, and other recruitment opportunities, there can be legal implications to excluding members. Certainly requiring potential limitations on the market within the group can raise red antitrust flags for the Federal Trade Commission.”
Wilson was clear to state that no legal issues have come her way in the independent school world, but noted that the FTC has become more aware of the educational space. “There was a case two years ago where the FTC went after a piano teachers’ association, because it believed the association’s code of ethics was attempting to fix the market through a restriction on recruiting students from other teachers. How does this work for independent schools when a struggling school wants to admit and enroll now, but may be tied to the agreements of a regional association? Could the FTC be interested in this if the association restricts the market through its codes or agreements? It’s certainly possible, particularly in light of the FTC’s recent activity in this area.”
Beyond the Final Decision
Is adherence to consortia practices —including common dates—a good thing or a bad thing? Each person interviewed agreed that the role of regional groups and consortia goes beyond just the common date question. The answer seems to be mutual respect and maintaining the ethics that independent schools extoll as part of their missions.
ISAAD certainly sees that while its membership and notification date policies may not be a fit for every school, there’s a greater cause at stake: “We understand that our small group is part of the larger independent school community of schools in Dallas, so we host a large school event each year,” Baker explains. “This year we had 130 schools showcase at the preview and more than 1,000 families came.”
Marsau also agrees that the families and school fit must come first. “We’re about education. We all want students who fit, and not every student is a right fit for every school,” she asserts. “If we all work hard on articulating who each of us is as a school, we should get the students who match our missions. AAAIS recently hired its first executive director with a goal of raising awareness of the value of an independent school education throughout the entire Atlanta area, thus benefiting all of our member schools and adding value to big schools and small schools alike.”
Just as Marsau extolled, Baker agrees that the admission community benefits from association. “Beyond the dates, we have developed an amazing group of professionals who rely on each other,” Baker explains. “I think some groups have tension because there is this idea that everyone should do everything the exact same way. That is an impossible goal. There are things you can agree upon, like common dates and revisit days, but the friendship and collegiality are probably the most impactful.”
Perhaps most important to note is that individual admission directors have total control over how their families experience the decision process. Ian Gracey, director of admission at Groton School (MA), says timing can be more powerful than just the date. “I think it’s important that families are together when they receive a decision. It can be a dramatic moment in a child’s life, and parents should be there to support their child when he gets that news,” he states. “Similarly, it can be very disruptive to a traditional school day if kids are getting messaged in the morning before school starts. I feel it’s best to send the decisions at night, when families have time to think, talk, and react together.”