By Benjamin H. Douglass, Director of Admission, Saint James School (MD)
Admission is a tough job. As difficult as it is to fill the "admission bucket" each year with strong, mission-appropriate students, nothing is more infuriating and disheartening than to have that bucket spring leaks. Some holes that exist in our admission buckets are the unavoidable end result of dealing with forward-thinking teenagers whose plans most closely resemble "ready, FIRE, aim!"; other holes, though, are self-inflicted. The good news is that those self-inflicted holes can be fixed and hole-creating habits, behaviors, and attitudes can be shifted with a little time, attention to detail, and good old-fashioned communication.
Attrition, the loss of previously enrolled students, occurs when there is a communication breakdown between two or more of the following constituents: families, administration/faculty/staff, and admission. Proper and continuous education for these three communities is essential to maximizing retention, meeting enrollment and revenue goals, and, most importantly, serving your families well.
Some brief thoughts on the education of each group:
Show, don't tell: Give families as much access to your community as possible during the admission process. Allow students to have a shadow day, arrange for families to meet key administrators, and provide parents with contact information for parent ambassadors (who are properly educated in school programs, of course). Seeing your programs and hearing your message echoed from multiple sources will not only improve conversion and yield, it will also help to eliminate misunderstandings that can lead to attrition down the road.
No hover zone: Teach your families the proper way to communicate with the school community once they have enrolled. If you have helicopter parents on your campus, you likely know who they are before they enroll. Spending some time at the beginning of the year to teach new families (and some existing ones) when and how communication with faculty and staff should occur is vital to reducing the number of dissatisfied parents. Dissatisfaction comes from unmet expectations, so proactively set the terms for what families should expect regarding communication.
Administration, Faculty, and Staff:
How may I help you? Whether we like it or not, private school education is a service-oriented business, and customer service is a key factor in improving retention. While we know that the customer isn't really always right, we all need to remember that our families are sacrificing in many ways to entrust their most precious possession to our hands. When a family is wrong, it is our responsibility to properly and respectfully educate the parents regarding our rationale in making the decision in question. It is also important to remember that the students are our customers too. Take the time to remind your faculty about customer needs.
24/7/365: 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, long-time independent and college admission guru and inspiration for the Erdmann Institute (www.erdmanninstitute.com), loved to say, "They will not remember what you said, they'll remember how you made them feel."
Values first: Work diligently to communicate the school's values and to learn the values of each prospective family. If families understand and buy into a school's value system, they are much more likely to roll with the punches when minor communication issues arise (as they always do). When values align, retention is high, and families begin selling the school for you with positive word-of-mouth messages.
Know what you sell, sell what you know: It is important for admission officers to know the school and its programs well. As responsibilities in the admission office intensify, it's common that fewer admission professionals are assigned coaching responsibilities, duty nights, and weekend trips. Staying connected with the students is not only important for creating a memorable experience for them, it provides the storytelling that can be used in conversations with families to illustrate programs and authentically sell the school.