Mission Possible: Enrollment Management and the Independent School Accreditation Process

Mission Possible: Enrollment Management and the Independent School Accreditation Process

From The Yield, Fall 2014

Private independent schools are allowed to operate because agreed upon standards govern the educational process. Accreditors work to build those standards so that all schools are reviewed by their peers in order to examine the past in an effort to discover a more productive future. Therefore, accreditation not only forms the basis for an internal culture of continuous improvement but also signals to families and other stakeholders that external standards are met.

While the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) does not directly accredit, it does have a Commission on Accreditation that was established in 2001, “To delineate best practices, policies, and procedures for the accreditation of independent schools by the state and regional associations.” Regional accrediting bodies provide the specific quality assurance for educational, business, and enrollment practices. In some cases, such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the accrediting body not only serves independent schools but also serves public, church-related, and proprietary schools. For Canadian independent schools, accreditation is the overarching construct for affiliation in their national association — the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) — and all 90 of the independent schools served by CAIS commit to meeting national 

During accreditation, school departments submit extensive reports on operations, programs, and results. Reports are peer reviewed, and a visiting team commissioned by the accreditation body conducts subsequent interviews with the report writers. While there is a mutual understanding of support given to the school under review, the accrediting body must examine and assess the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of the school’s leadership, operations, financial position, admission and enrollment programs, facilities, and educational and institutional methods. Depending on the accrediting body, these elements may be examined against previously set goals or how they stack up in delivering on the school’s mission or strategic plan.

A Challenging Opportunity

Julie Lewis, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Alexandria Country Day School (VA), joined ACDS in July 2012 and started the accreditation process in spring 2013. The process was uniquely challenging because in addition to Lewis, ACDS’s Head of School, Director of Advancement, Director of Development, Head of Lower School, and Head of Middle School were all new to the school.

“I had been a member of accreditation teams for several schools in several states; so I knew what to expect,” explained Lewis. “With a new administration in place, it was a perfect opportunity for us to assess our processes. The most significant outcome was the nurturing of interdepartmental relationships. I had quite a bit of work to do with our business manager during the report writing, and as a result, our working relationships across departments grew stronger.”

Being relatively new to the school at the time of the accreditation cycle, Lewis found that the admission data was not easy to pull together. “My takeaway during this accreditation process was the importance of making sure that all records and data are consistent and seamless.” Lewis and the admission team took the opportunity to reorganize the department’s records, and then discussed and established new data sets that would provide deeper insight into the ACDS student body for long-term tracking purposes.

Lewis was fortunate to have an admission professional on the visiting team — something not very common in the accreditation process. “The business manager and head of school have their equals on the visiting team,” she explains. “However, the peer-to-peer questions an experienced admission professional asks result in more meaningful accreditation recommendations.”

Ultimately, the accreditation process enabled a new administrative team to strengthen the school’s operations — and Lewis to solidify her role on the team.

Emphasis on Mission

An admission process that contributes to school sustainability must meet both the enrollment goals of the school and the educational goals of the family. What does mission-driven look like through the lens of the accreditation process? The Southern Association of Independent Schools’ (SAIS) accreditation process is highly reflective of a school’s mission and encourages schools to explore the formative nature their communities.

“In a mission-driven accreditation protocol, schools have the opportunity to engage with stakeholders in a growth mindset, focusing on their strengths and understanding how to leverage those strengths for continued and future mission fulfillment — it is the harder part of the process and the part schools get the most out of,” says Damian Kavanagh, Vice President, Accreditation & Membership, SAIS. “It is a highly formative protocol and calls on a school to work from the inside out and collaboratively understand who it is, where it wants to go, how it will get there, and what markers will indicate progress on the journey. Schools get fired up about the intrinsic nature of deeper mission fulfillment, and this model is designed to serve the school, rather than serving the needs of the accrediting agency.”

SAIS supports this protocol through interactive training activities. In one workshop, participants explore the concept of the face validity of a mission statement by attempting to describe operational characteristics of a sample school based entirely on the school’s mission; this naturally leads participants to describe the ideal student based on the mission of the school and then to describe an admission process. “As we debrief the activity, someone almost always winds up describing a student who isn’t actually a match for the mission,” explains Kavanagh. “This is our springboard to a deep discussion about intersection of mission and admission.”

Bill Bennett, Director of the Commission on Independent Schools at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), notes that accreditation under NEASC starts and ends with the students. “The school is about the kids, admission is about the kids, and the connection to the kids is what is at the heart of our accreditation,” explains Bennett.

NEASC has approximately 60 schools under accreditation review each year. All schools must meet NEASC’s specific Standard on Enrollment that reads: “The admissions process assures that those students who enroll are appropriate, given the school’s mission, and are likely to benefit from their experience at the school.”

“I like to say that the standard is a statement of the integrity of the school — you don’t admit students you can’t serve or, if you admit them, you have an obligation to serve them,” notes Bennett. “I ask faculty to think about the profile of students who can thrive at the school. Is the admission’s process successful in assembling an appropriate student body? We talk about amount and reasons for attrition as an indicator and we also talk about the marginal admissions — most schools want to admit some “risks” for whom the school may make a huge difference; the question is, how many? My hope is that the reflection on this standard will result in conversation between faculty and admission teams and a greater understanding and appreciation of the perspectives, needs, and frustrations of both sides.”

Kavanagh recommends admission leaders take a proactive approach in the accreditation process. “When mission and admission are truly aligned, the amazing life-altering experiences we all hope to effect in students have a chance to happen,” says Kavanagh.

Using Data to Make Meaning

To help drive school improvement, admission officers — like their colleagues in other school departments — must collect, analyze, and communicate information about a myriad of things. In admission, some of these key drivers include external and internal factors that have or will impact enrollment, characteristics and trends associated with the candidate pool and the school’s market share, qualitative and quantitative admission criteria, consumer habits, and expectancies for student performance at the school. Therefore, it is not surprising that accrediting bodies are now digging deeper into data in search of opportunity.

The College Preparatory School (CA) recently piloted the California Association of Independent Schools’ new self-study process. “In the pilot process, questions were more open ended and allowed us to tailor the self-study in a more meaningful way,” notes Jonathan Zucker, College Preparatory School’s Director of Admission and Financial Aid. “Having been through the accreditation cycle before, it was obvious that the reporting section had fewer questions. However, the process was more customizable to our school and admission office. Our team was able to see on paper where our data, the science of our process, merged with seeking, wooing, and enrolling mission-appropriate students.”

While the questions were certainly mission-focused, Zucker explained that the real benefit was being able to see data in a new light. Zucker was fortunate that his 10-year tenure at the school and its reliance on data presented clean records to work with; however, the way the questions were worded provided new insight into what they had been looking at in the same way for years. “The admission team had only been a small part of the financial aid budget process,” he explained. “During the accreditation process, we provided information in ways that allowed us to make the case to other administrators and to the board about what a small percentage shift in financial aid really means when it comes to selecting the most appropriate students for our school. While it didn’t change how we award the grants, it did change how much money we had to award. Accreditation allowed admission to be part of the process in a much bigger way than before — and it was data, data, data that got us there. We can only imagine what can be done when we look deeper in other areas or explore new data sets to incorporate on our own, or for accreditation.”

As Bill Bennett from NEASC explains, “The spirit of NEACS’s accreditation is the totality of the school. Admission people can prepare by pulling together data, articulating the criteria they use in admitting students, defining the profile and describing the margins clearly, and preparing to enter into a dialog with the faculty about the realities today. The ultimate goal is having the right data in hand to understand how the right students will shape long-term outcomes, mission, and promise.”

Assessing the Future

The increasingly competitive student market results in an ever greater need for schools to better communicate value to prospective parents. There is growing pressure to demonstrate ROI to trustees and parents, especially as tuition rises, and to those donors practicing what is called “strategic philanthropy.” Thus, as independent schools find themselves challenged to quantify and articulate their value-added to increasingly savvy and cost-conscious consumers, it will be essential for accrediting bodies to guide the establishment and the development of student benchmark and outcome data that will help our schools remain sustainable. Now more than ever, independent schools will need to rely on admission and assessment in the accreditation process and beyond.

The NAIS Commission on Accreditation Criterion 13 (adopted in 2009 for implementation in 2011) expects that accrediting associations will seek from schools evidence of the use of both internal and external mission-appropriate data for school planning and decision making. It is important to note that after a near exact analogue was added to the accreditation requirements of colleges and universities in the early 2000s, a national study of post-secondary accreditation found assessment to be the institutional area most frequently deemed noncompliant (Source: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment).

As The Enrollment Management Association Executive Director, Heather Hoerle, emphasizes, “According to the 2013-14 NAIS Trendbook, the number one issue on the minds of heads and board chairs is managing enrollment and keeping the school affordable. Given the myriad challenges that exist in today’s market, the admission leader serves a critical role as the school’s chief revenue and relationship 
officer — not to mention fulfilling the school’s mission by enrolling ‘right fit’ students. More than ever, independent schools need to show value for the cost of attendance. The role of admission — from assessment to selection to enrollment to re-enrollment — requires further consideration in the accreditation discussion.”



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