The business of independent school admissions and enrollment has changed.
No one knows better than Alison Greer, independent school admissions veteran with three decades of experience at day and boarding schools. Today, connecting with prospective families to turn inquiries into applications and enrollment agreements requires a new skillset and mindset, combined with more traditional strategies.
Kalix asked Alison for her insight on independent school admissions and what schools should be doing right now to attract families.
Kalix: What’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed in your long career in independent school admissions?
Alison: The landscape has definitely changed. Today, parents have so many more choices from homeschooling to charter schools and public magnet schools. There’s also an emphasis for kids to specialize early in a particular sport or the arts.
The decision-maker has changed as well. It used to be that the parents would come at 8th grade without their child to tour and determine if the school was what they wanted. That’s all gone. Kids are making the decision [about attending a school] in elementary school. You need to strike a balance between appealing to parents and to a younger and younger decision-maker. Another huge change, of course, is social media and the power of review sites. Admissions officers have to navigate through that.
There’s more school-hopping now, too. The ability of today’s parents to be in their child’s lives is very different. Parents are exposed to more of their kids’ everyday lives now and are eager to fix it immediately. Kids can walk out of history class and text mom in real time that they didn’t like the class. When I worked at my first boarding school in 1992, the student had to wait until the end of the school day or even the evening to call her parents with news of the day. By then, hopefully, the student had navigated any obstacles, and it wasn’t a huge issue. What all this means for schools today is that parents are looking for a higher level of customer service in the admissions process and in the school itself.
Kalix: How can admissions officers navigate this?
Alison: It depends on your market. Are you the only independent school for miles around or are you in a saturated market? Every experience any prospective parent and student has with your school needs to be personalized. With technology, it’s very easy to do this.
When colleges have admissions visitors coming, they create a personalized sign on a parking space for the visitor. People expect that kind of personalization. When a student visits your school, he or she expects to meet with the coach of their sport or the art department head, Robotics team advisor – whatever the student’s interest is. This means orchestrating the school visit very differently than in the past. There shouldn’t be a standard visit schedule or tour route. It needs to be tailored and special. You can do a great job with each family, but it does take time.
Track every touch electronically to tailor their experience. This keeps them involved and connected and makes admissions officers better able to be in positive, consistent touch with prospects.
Kalix: What role do data and technology play in admissions marketing today?
Alison: Data is important, but it can be misleading. You can open up your admission funnel and get 150 more families, but if those families aren’t looking at your school for what you really offer, than you are better off with fewer prospects who truly are interested in your mission and program.
If you look at inquiries for independent schools now vs. 25 years ago, they have gone down drastically, but families today are more informed. When I started, families would call the school to request the viewbook. When it arrived in the mail, they might read it and realize that it wasn’t the school for them. Today, people are spending time learning about your school before they make that first call or fill out an online inquiry form. They are spending time on websites and social media learning about you.
Constantly review your website stats to determine where visitors are going on your site. Do what you can to track the ghost inquiries visiting your website. [Learn more about engaging website “ghosts” here.] Put something on the most-visited pages that require visitors to leave their name and email (do NOT ask for a ton of information at this point). Maybe it’s an invitation to download an article by your athletic director on “10 Things to do to be Recruited by a Division I School” on your athletic page and college counseling page. The emails you get are from families who have indicated that they are interested in you or something that your school does well.
Also use your data to determine what admissions events are most effective. Data is great for breaking out of a mindset that you ‘need to do an event because you always have.’ In many markets, very few families are coming to an open house as their first visit to your campus. Instead of a traditional open house program, what about a clinic with your varsity soccer coach and players for prospective soccer families? Or an afternoon doing improv with a theater class and teacher for those students interested in the performing arts? You’ll have a much more meaningful campus visit then an open house on a Sunday with a general tour and program.
Kalix: What is the most effective admissions marketing strategy in your experience?
Alison: No doubt, it’s parent-to-parent interaction with current parents talking with prospective parents. I’ve used current parents as tour guides, to send emails to prospective parents, as callers after a visit, etc. It has an even bigger impact when the prospective student is younger.
But you need to design these interactions carefully. Give your parent callers and tour guides specific talking points about your school and train them. Some schools encourage current parents to write an online review [on school ranking sites or your school’s social media], and some don’t.
Whenever I met with a family, one of the questions I asked was ‘What brought you here?’ If they mentioned a current family or alumni, I would write a hand-written thank-you note to that person, usually with a Starbucks gift card, immediately after the visit.
Kalix: What is the one thing that admissions officers should not ignore?
Alison: On every level and with every touch or marketing outreach, you need to articulate who your school is. It was important 25 years ago, and it’s important now. Yes, the ways we share a school’s unique culture are different now through Instagram and other social media, but the ability to talk about who you are as a school, your culture and mission remains the most important thing you can do.
Your academic program and any marketing research data you have are important, but the heart of any marketing you do is about the emotion that child feels about your school. Do they sprint from the car or bus to the front door of your school? Are they excited from the moment the car pulls onto your campus? If the child feels it, the parent is going to feel it.
Children need to feel known, valued and trusted. When I worked at York Country Day [in York, Pennsylvania], we chose those words as a theme for the year. On Back to School night, I asked every teacher to write ‘KVT’ on the whiteboard or blackboard and asked them to talk about it. Our current parents needed to hear it and feel it first and then help it trickle down to prospective families.
The emotional pull of our messaging is more prominent now than it ever was. Everything should be through this filter even outcomes. As parents, we want our children to be happy and emotionally secure. If a school can show happy kids, that will get parents in the door.
About Alison Greer
Alison’s expertise is gleaned from three decades of admissions and enrollment management, strategy and planning. She led the admissions efforts for Garrison Forest School, a K-12 girls’ day and boarding school with a coed preschool, and York Country Day School, a coed preschool –12th grade day school, and held advancement and leadership roles at Harvard Business School and Wellesley College (her alma mater).
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