Why They Apply: Highlights from the 2017 Ride to Independent Schools report

September 16, 2019 EMA Team

Why They Apply: Highlights from the 2017 Ride to Independent Schools report

What drives families to apply to—and enroll their children in—independent schools? Which information and interactions impact their decisions the most? Three years ago, an EMA applicant parent survey, published in the report The Ride to Independent Schools, aimed to get to the heart of these questions that are critical to the work of admission and enrollment professionals.

To discover to what degree changes in school practices and in the market have impacted the family experience, we conducted a follow-up survey of parents whose children took the SSAT in 2016-17. Analysis of the responses from more than 2,700 families in the U.S., Canada, and worldwide provided many insights for the 2017 Ride to Independent Schools report, including the following:

  • + Commitment: Families’ commitment to independent education is strong from the start of the application process and gets stronger at each step. 77% were extremely or very committed before researching schools, 86% after visiting, and 88% when they applied.
  • + Important factors: Academic strength and moral character development are nearly equally important for families. Almost all families (97%) are seeking an education that will challenge their children and help develop in them a love of learning. 92% say they are looking for moral character development.
  • + Motivations: Understanding each family’s motivations is critical for messaging. Thirty-nine percent are just exploring other educational options, while 20% are dissatisfied in their current environment.
  • + Concerns: Affordability is by far families’ top concern before they begin researching or applying. It was cited by 62% of respondents and by respondents from all income brackets.
  • + International families: Understanding international families’ concerns, timelines, and motivations is key to supporting them. Nearly one half (46%) want to send their child to prepare them for college in U.S./Canada. Thirty-two percent are concerned about adjusting to the culture, 16% about not being welcomed, 10% about visa issues, and 11% about understanding the admission process.
  • + Methods of research and first introduction: Word of mouth is the most common way families research schools, while social media ranks low. Families do not follow a predictable path through the admission funnel. One third (33%) first identified themselves to schools through a general online inquiry form. For 14%, their first form of introduction was to submit an application.
  • + Application hurdles: For a number of families, hurdles are anticipated or experienced at each step of the process. Before researching schools, nearly a quarter (24%) of first-generation independent school families were concerned about not understanding the application and admission process, as were 16% of all parents. Twelve percent decided not to apply because of the time involved in applying. Almost half (47%) found the application process to be more work than they expected. Less than half (48%) used a common application service.

What can schools take away from these findings as they work to strengthen their enrollment strategies? While families’ commitment to independent education is strong from the start, schools must continually fill the top of the funnel, even as that funnel shifts. The industry has shown moderate progress in increasing the personalization of the application process, but it must still be made even smoother and clearer—especially for international and first-generation families. Finally, affordability must be a primary focus of day-to-day admission efforts and long-term enrollment strategy.

To read the full report, which includes action steps, click here.

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