Notes from a Listening Tour

Notes from a Listening Tour

From Memberanda, Summer 2011

When Heather Hoerle took up her position as Executive Director at The Enrollment Management Association, her first order of business was to connect in a meaningful way with members, to listen to their needs and to get a sense of the climate in the independent school admission world. “For me, it was important to get out with our members and hear from them about the issues that ‘keep them awake at night,’” Hoerle says. “Clearly, The Enrollment Management Association has the opportunity to increase its services and research for member schools and to play an increasingly important role in using data-driven information to advance school decision making.”

The “Hear for You Listening Tour” turned out to be an effective way to accomplish this goal. Hoerle made 14 tour stops, from The Enrollment Management Association’s newest member group in St. Louis to a meeting with founding members the Ten Schools Admission Organization in Deerfield, Mass. Along the way, she braved bad weather and delayed transportation trials but met with warm welcomes everywhere. Some 350 people representing more than 230 schools and organizations came out to share their thoughts.

Members were unfailingly generous and friendly, but forthright when discussing their challenges and their expectations about The Enrollment Management Association in the future, Hoerle reports. Though there were significant regional differences, consistent areas of concern emerged throughout the tour: the pressure of the year-round admission “season” (see related article on page 14); the presence of non-traditional competitors such as magnet and charter schools, improved public and for-profit options, and home schooling; the need to address expanding financial aid requests from both new and returning families; the importance of communicating successfully the value of an independent school education; and the advent of new technologies and their influence on how admission professionals do their jobs. She was heartened to discover that in many parts of the country, schools are doing quite well — a sense of doom and gloom is not the reality for everyone.

St. Louis attendees remarked on the busyness of the admission office year-round – the fact that there is “more” of everything, visits, tours, events, etc. In Avon, Conn., a diverse group of admission directors and placement professionals discussed the increasing need to explain the value-added proposition of independent schools – and, as in St. Louis, the challenges of working with increasingly savvy parents and students who want to be wooed and won, even as they request more and more financial aid and postpone enrolling their children in independent schools at the lower grades. Members also offered ideas about improving The Enrollment Management Association’s services, particularly concerning the Standard Application Online (SAO), as well as an interest in enhancing the assessment process.

Two stops in the Sunshine State (Tampa and Coconut Creek) introduced the very challenging Florida market to the mix. Tampa’s schools are struggling to meet financial aid needs while being hampered by local politics. Southern Florida’s schools, while strong in admission, are seeing a big surge in competition from charter programs. Another challenging locale is the Philadelphia area, where independent schools exist within a very strong marketplace that also is home to a very large number of schools. In such an oversaturated marketplace, many schools compete for the same students. Financial aid and tuition topped Philadelphia-area admission professionals’ list of concerns —along with marketing and value messaging.

Canadian schools, while facing many of the same issues as their United States colleagues, are faring relatively well in the world recession. Schools in Toronto haven’t seen an economic dip – yet. Hoerle’s listening tour stop in Toronto focused on how to define the independent school advantage in an increasingly competitive field where public schools are strong (and free). Many Atlanta schools are in growth mode, even during the recession. As one admission director said, “We realize that this demand is a very good problem to have… trust me.” Atlanta admission directors discussed their desire for a larger portfolio of new assessments from The Enrollment Management Association, as well as expanded opportunities for peer networking and professional development. Representatives of New Jersey schools talked about their concerns surrounding financial aid, the need to balance requests from returning families with the needs of new students joining their schools, and mentioned families who try to negotiate their awards. Educating families about the admission process (with the goal of alleviating some test anxiety), was also a concern. Princeton schools are managing application volume – particularly late applications – and addressing issues of diversity.

In the greater Washington, D.C., area, as is the case in many Mid-Atlantic settings, the group reported a sense of decline in their market. Even so, Washington, D.C., numbers are holding fast against the backdrop of the recession, with admission directors now working year-round. (One director said, “We now recognize a ‘second season’ as part of our process.”) Concerns were also raised about the increased demand for financial aid and independent school marketing and messaging, specifically around defining the independent school “promise” today, as educators watch public schools repurpose the model and make it free.

San Francisco schools are also struggling with affordability issues: one attendee said, “The only middle class kids in my school are faculty kids; the rest are full pay or full need.” While the economic recession has certainly been felt, for the most part San Francisco independent schools are holding their own, with some experiencing a big surge in applicants from China. Bay area schools were also very interested in issues relating to ongoing innovation and thought leadership in admission work. Echoes of the need for a cohesive value message and management of parental anxiety about testing were heard here as well.

Tour stops with the Ten Schools Admission Organization and at the Chatham Experience in Cape Cod, Mass., focused primarily on test innovation and planning for the future of admission testing. Participants wanted to talk in depth about a new vision for testing. Ray Diffley’s approach at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT), which uses Dr. Robert J. Sternberg’s alternative methods of assessment to measure student skills (See p. 8) made this group sit up and take notice. Jane Fried at Phillips Academy Andover (MA) also has been working with Dr. Sternberg to measure creativity. In addition, the Ten Schools group wants to fine tune research at The Enrollment Management Association to collect more demographic data about students that will help schools better understand their applicant pools. Hoerle will announce her plans for the future of The Enrollment Management Association at the Annual Meeting, where she will synthesize the feedback she heard from members during her tour into her goals.



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