Whether your school employs a process for collecting feedback from families who do and don’t accept an offer of admission, can you be certain you’re receiving honest responses? We decided to find out what parents really think about the admission process—for the second time—with an extensive survey of parents seeking to enroll their children in independent schools.
Without a “horse in the race” other than improving the process and informing schools, and therefore the ability to collect a more candid set of responses, The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) surveyed parents who completed the process of applying to independent schools in 2016-17. The survey drew more than 2,700 responses. Participants spent from 25 to 40 minutes on their answers, indicating that this is a group with a lot to say.
After perusing the responses and analyzing the data in a seminal report entitled 2017 The Ride to Independent Schools, we felt it was important to share the remarks beyond the statistics with our community. These parents spoke honestly about what is working in the admission process and what isn’t. Here, we delve into some of the reactions from parents that schools can act on to ease the process and turn prospects into applicants.
Tell Them They’re Special
Your communication strategy can make or break your relationship with parents before it has even begun. Parents were outspoken about emphasizing that the amount and type of communication they had with schools was critical to their decision to explore further or drop a school from consideration. It’s clear that families want to be heard and to be treated personally and authentically.
In this age of the stealth applicant, how are families gathering initial information? Digital media aside, many of them are getting it the old fashioned way: thirty-one percent of parents who responded to the survey said that they began researching independent schools by talking to other parents.
“The day this school was recommended to us, I just so happened to run into a woman and her daughter (wearing the school uniform) at a local store. When I inquired about their experience at the school both the mother and her child had nothing but extremely positive things to say. That gave me a really good feeling from the start.”
Well before reaching families through school fairs and campus visits, parents are already communicating with each other through word of mouth. Schools that take this important factor into account are those that put themselves in the driver’s seat, anticipating what families will say and controlling the narrative to the best of their ability.
Work Your Website
“It would be great to have more detailed information [about] each school; for example, its culture, school life, teacher/student relationships, etc. The school website is helpful, but they all look very similar and formal, [I] can’t feel the ‘true’ picture of the school.”
In addition to speaking with other parents directly, today’s prospect can find a wealth of information online. A quarter of respondents said that school websites are their primary means of researching school options.
We suggest: Make your website exceptional, make it a data mine, and make it a form of personalized communication. “Let’s say that I know that you’ve been on my website by your IP address and you fill out a web form that says, ‘Hey, I want to hear from the soccer coach,’” illustrates Jesse Roberts, CEO of Admission Pro. “You have now officially self-identified. We can examine the browsing history, take that information and score the engagement to see how in love you are with my school. I can see how strongly you are paying attention to my website, and if you’re answering my emails (or at least opening them and clicking through them), or sharing things to social media. Now I can start to score that engagement, and those engagement scores are directly correlated to enrollment.”1
“The admission office at the school we did not choose was not responsive or very attentive, and even somewhat cold during most interactions except for their big event.”
“The staff at one school always seemed aloof and disinterested. Another school, which was equally or even more competitive, had a much warmer manner. The first school sent out a cold, unpleasant rejection letter. Twice. The second sent one kind, gentle rejection that even named my student personally. I would consider the second school again, but would hesitate regarding the first.”
Along each step of the path from an inquiring prospect to a matriculating alumnus, families and students must understand that you are interested in them. This means a multifaceted, personalized, and attentive approach to communication is the best way to ensure families identify strongly with your school’s brand and include themselves as part of your community from day one. As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, wrote, “There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.”2 Your customer focus makes a difference to families.
Orchestrating the Perfect Visit
Every school says it: “As long as we can get them on campus, they’ll fall in love and apply.” Unfortunately, according to this survey, that is not the case. Just 58% of families applied to every school they visited, suggesting that the campus visit may be a make or break item for many potential applicants. While 84% of families (and 86% of U.S. families) visited at least one school, nearly a third said they did not apply to some of the schools they visited because they did not like the school, had a bad visit, or did not care for the people they met.
Speaking of the Tour Guide...
The first person with whom a family will engage when they come to tour your campus (beyond your receptionist or greeter) is likely a student tour guide. While spending time on your tour guide program may be an afterthought in the admission office, delegated to the office newbie or the youngest and most “relatable” staffer, an untrained and uncoached guide can have a devastating effect on the way families perceive your school.
“The first campus tour and revisit day are the most important touch points. The schools need to make sure that the current students who interact with potential students are highly trained and understand their responsibilities. We rejected schools after the tour because the student guide was so bad, and we rejected a school after a revisit day for the same reason. I can’t stress this enough. I’ve heard similar stories from other parents.”
“Bad” can mean many different things to many different people, and one person’s personalization (such as a tour guide researching a prospect on social media in advance of a visit—see quote, below) may be another’s privacy nightmare. Err on the side of caution.
“One of the student guides was given the name of my daughter beforehand and looked her up on social media. By the time we went on the tour, the girl knew everything about my daughter, and this was incredibly unsettling. The same girl badmouthed the other schools we were visiting, saying they had drug problems,et cetera.”
In a spring 2012 survey of children who applied to independent schools, EMA’s Aimee Gruber and Rumsey Hall School (CT) Assistant Headmaster Fran Ryan found that 33% of the students surveyed said that the student tour guides were “very influential” in their decision to apply to a school. Sixteen percent said they did not apply to a school due to a negative experience with a tour guide.3
Once you get them to campus, be sure families are cared for every step of the way. This means providing them with opportunities to see the areas of campus they want to see, sitting in on real classes, chatting with teachers of their favorite subjects, and having opportunities to connect with students.
“Particularly meaningful for our child were the school visits where she could sample student life by attending classes, assemblies, advisor groups, meals, dorm life and extracurriculars; become acquainted [with the] academic team by meeting with teachers and/or educational support specialists; have one-onone access to a student guide; and to have a caring and curious admission officer take an interest in who she is/wishes to become.”
While respondents largely felt well-prepared before their tours and interviews, often the simplest things (and, by assumption, the easiest) can get overlooked by admission teams not focused on details.
“We had asked for an interview date and were confirmed to have one. But the admission officer was nowhere to be found. Even though they gave us a very generous financial aid package, I felt we were not a top priority for them. My son chose to attend a day school close to home. He was ready for boarding, but we worried he would fall through the cracks.”
Making the visit a personal experience can take many different forms, but in all cases it entails knowing something about the applicant. Cate School (CA) Senior Associate Director of Admission Gwendolyn Pierce seizes every opportunity to help people forge relationships with those already at Cate, emailing a list of the visitors to the entire Cate community. People who know each other, or who are from the same town, generally make a point of stopping by to greet families. Pierce describes this as going after the “low-hanging fruit,” adding that it helps visitors connect and feel more comfortable.4
Finally, don’t assume every family is interested in joining a group visit; include options for children and families who prefer a more low-key setting.
“Group visits were terrible. Other, rude families often interrupted or dominated time with key people my daughter wanted to meet. She was suspicious of “white washing” at organized events. Personal tours and class visits on normal days were far more valuable. I must note my daughter (and her parents) are more introverted. I’m sure extroverted folks like the group days.”
We suggest: Given how important the school visit is to solidifying families’ interest, take a closer look at what is happening during and after campus visits. Jenna King, director of admission and enrollment at Riverdale Country School (NY), takes a hands-on approach: “There’s no better way to know what’s happening in the life of the school than to experience it through the students’ eyes,” she says. “How does a prospective parent experience your school and application process? Take a tour. What questions weren’t answered? Give the tour guide feedback about what was missing or unclear. I cannot overestimate the value of spending your team’s time really understanding your school and your admission process from an outsider’s perspective. Debrief the user experiences, and use them as a starting point for your planning.”5
Repeated Refrain: The Revisit Day
Eighty-seven percent of the families surveyed said that the revisit day was extremely important in helping them make their acceptance decision, either in a positive or negative direction. “Regarding the school visits and the revisit day, all we heard were extremes on both ends,” asserts Aimee Gruber. “Either it was so fantastic it made the experience, or it completely undid the experience. There was no middle ground.”
We’ll let the parents speak for themselves:
“One school has a full-day [revisit] program for both parents and kids. The kids have their own program and the parents have a different program. It was absolutely phenomenal and like no other program, and I am a tough critic. I was engaged every moment of the day, it was so very well coordinated, and I got to meet a lot of other parents. My son ended up selecting this school.”
“When we went to the revisit day, I was shocked that the boys’ a cappella group sang a song called ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ by Queen. ‘Hey big woman you gonna make a big man of me.’ It was surprising to me that a school would allow a song like that to represent them on such an important day. My son thinks I am ridiculous that it bothered me, but it did.”
While admission offices may understand the value and importance placed on revisit days, this message may not always be communicated campus wide. Jennifer McGurn (Pace Academy, GA) and Kat Sullivan (Bay School of San Francisco, CA) warn that while a great visit is everyone’s responsibility, you must take care not to overwhelm your colleagues: “Take the time to understand the school from the perspective of your colleagues. Understand their workflow so you don’t schedule a prospective family reception on the night of a full day of teacher conferences and expect any of your faculty to show up. Be organized, plan ahead, and do not ask your maintenance team to accomplish Herculean tasks the week before a major event. Put yourself in the shoes of your colleagues: respect their time and they will respect yours.”6
We suggest: What else can schools do to improve revisit days? Post-visit surveys are an important but underutilized tool to improve campus visits. Only about a quarter of the survey’s respondents say they received a post-visit survey, but the vast majority of those who did (80%) said they did not hesitate to give negative feedback for fear it would impact the admission decision. This suggests there is little risk to conducting these surveys—and likely much benefit in helping schools refine and improve the inperson experience.
Applications Speak Louder than Words
“I was a bit taken aback by how difficult and time consuming the application process is. I think it’s ridiculous, it was more rigorous than the university process.”
“The process is too long and drawn out. After paying all of these fees and not to be accepted is ridiculous. Very disappointed. I would like all my money back and time spent filling out all of the paperwork.”
“I believe the children are asked to write too many essays.”
Families are applying to more schools than ever in their search for the right fit (and the right financial package), and many are seeking the most efficient and timesaving way to do so. There are several standard applications in the independent school marketplace, but the largest and most used (with over 240,000 applications submitted) is EMA’s Standard Application Online (SAO), a free member benefit designed by and for schools. Before researching, 24% of first generation families and 16% of all families are concerned about understanding how to apply. Later in the process, 12% dropped schools due to the amount of time involved in applying.
Parents appreciate the option of a standardized application, but many schools hesitate to accept one in lieu of (or in addition to) their own proprietary application. Julie Cucchi, director of admission and financial aid at Princeton Day School (NJ), asserts, “Using the SAO simplifies the application process in meaningful ways for the students and families we serve. It has definitely resulted in PDS being able to admit and enroll qualified students who may not otherwise have applied to our school. We had a 25% increase in applications our first year! Using the SAO has saved us time and resources. We now spend more time with our prospective families and less with our filing cabinets.”
Although hundreds of EMA member schools accept the SAO, 44% of parent respondents who did not use a standard application say it was because the school did not offer one. Another fifth (22%) were not aware that it was an option, and a small percentage (8%) believed using it would negatively impact chances for acceptance.
Scott Eckstein, director of admission for Solebury School (PA), tells us that once his school began using the SAO, “The feedback from families has been consistently positive. To be able to say to them, ‘I value your time and your teachers’ time, and so we use this common application so that you can focus on continuing to do well in school and not filling out different applications’ feels really good to me. The SAO family interface is intuitive and easy to use.”
We suggest: The lack of awareness among prospective parents about the availability of a common application—and misunderstandings about the way it’s viewed by the admission office—could be remedied with clearer in-person and online communication. For schools hesitating to accept one, consider that you are losing families simply by not taking this crucial step to make it easier for them to apply. Given that the use of a common application is one of the key recommendations parents make for improving the admission process, it’s difficult to argue against one.
It should come as no surprise that affordability is a key hurdle to application and enrollment. For 90% of the parents who applied for financial aid, its availability plays an extremely or very important role in the decision to apply to a school. Even before applying, 62% of all survey respondents expressed a concern about affordability. Half of the families who were accepted to an independent school but did not attend said it was because of price.
“We would not have even considered a private school to begin with if we didn’t think we would qualify for some aid. By the time we were refused aid, our son had his heart set on attending this school.”
“Be more transparent about what they can offer families. Stop the back-and-forth that likens the process to a car sale.”
Beyond the significant obstacle of affordability, respondents expressed a sense of frustration at the process of applying for financial aid. Several said they completed the entire admission process before being notified about their financial aid status. Ten percent of the respondents said they lacked information about the financial aid process, and another 6% said the process was just too overwhelming.
With six in 10 families—from all income brackets—applying for financial aid, the question often asked is, “What makes an independent school better than our free options?”
“Private schools struggle to articulate the value for the money they provide. It felt that the only benefit for a significant cost is better access to counseling. Private schools should better sell educational benefits they offer vs. the costs they charge.”
As the following parent points out, schools need to help families understand an independent school’s return on investment, especially when affordability becomes a barrier to applying/accepting:
“Give each parent that has to apply for financial aid a one-on-one appointment to walk them through the process and procedures.”
We suggest: Continue to strive to provide more clarity and ease in the financial aid process. One possible solution is offering families additional guidance and transparency about whether they would qualify for aid before they complete their applications.
Nancy Cleary, director of admission and financial aid at The Loomis Chaffee School (CT), has published a family contribution distribution chart on the school’s website for years. She says, “This way, the tuition cost is irrelevant, and you are talking only about how it will impact the family—what they will actually pay. It’s hard to get families to think in these terms, because they are so programmed to talk about how much financial aid they got, or will get. It’s definitely a paradigm shift, but one that is a much better gauge for a family in terms of making an informed decision about their financial future.”7
With the growing complexity of tuition models and financial options, enrollment leaders and financial aid decision makers need to think strategically about satisfying both the needs of the families and the school in the process.
How do we Start Speaking Their Language?
Ultimately, the most important takeaway from the family feedback in our survey was that schools need to put the family experience first. From the first time they visit your website to the way you accept or deny them admission, they must feel that they are your priority. Ensure your visit program is lockstep, from scheduling to tour guide training to matching a student’s interests with the campus highlights they see. Have adequate signage and make sure every family gets a real experience when they come to campus. Reach out often and ask families about their experience with you. Don’t let your daily minutiae get in the way of bringing families in the door.
1“Tracking the Stealth Applicant.” From The Yield, Spring 2017.
2 “2016 Letter to Shareholders” by Jeff Bezos. dayone, The Amazon blog. April 17, 2017. https://blog.aboutamazon.com/working-at-amazon/2016-letter-to-shareholders
3“What Kids Think!” From Memberanda (The Yield), Fall 2012.
4 “Doing It Right: School Visits, Cate Style.” From Memberanda (The Yield), Fall 2011.
5“Reflecting on the Prospective’s Perspective.” (Right on Time blog, June 2016, enrollment.org).
6“Internal Marketing—Getting Your Team Invested in the Goal.” (Right on Time blog, October 2016, enrollment.org).
7“Best Practices: Transparency.” From Memberanda (The Yield), Spring 2013.