There is a famous line by management guru, Peter Druker that states “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Drucker rightly observed that if your organization does not embrace a culture that is oriented toward achieving its goals, it doesn’t matter how strong your business strategy is, you will still fail.
With student enrollment continuing to get more competitive, it is important that your school or district has the right enrollment culture to engage in a strong enrollment strategy. Creating an enrollment culture in your school means instilling a strategic, consistent, and all-inclusive effort and focus on boosting enrollment among school leaders, staff, students, families, and community members.
In my work helping schools and districts enroll more students, I often start off the meeting by asking one simple question: “Why is enrollment down at your school or district”. How they answer this question tells me a lot about the cultural challenges or mindsets that need to be shifted for them to become more successful in enrollment.
Here are the four dangerous mindsets and thoughts on how to reframe your thinking to build a successful school enrollment culture.
“The competition is stealing our kids.”
You often hear this complaint in public districts that have a significant charter population. They feel that the grand bargain in public schools was broken and that the students that should go to their school are being swiped away by those other schools.
This is a very dangerous mindset because what it does is absolves the person saying it from responsibility. Those schools are doing something nefarious (stealing) which is why our students aren’t attending our school anymore.
By adopting this mindset, it is easy to paint yourself as a victim and not take any action to address your enrollment challenges.
The more appropriate question or statement to make here is: “I may not like it, but we are in an environment of school choice and for some reason, parents are choosing another school over ours. We need to figure out why and address it”
By moving into a more positive mindset, you are able to take action to improve your situation. Understanding what those other schools are offering and comparing them against your own offerings will give you insight into how you stack up against the competition.
“We don’t know why our students are leaving.”
Retention is the foundation of developing a strong enrollment system. So if your enrollment funnel has a big leak at the bottom, you need to plug it fast!
It can be hard when families leave your school because they are not happy. Administrators work very hard to try to ensure that they are delivering a positive experience every day. Sometimes it can be seen almost as a personal criticism when families decide to leave.
Modifying this statement into a more action-oriented one will help you to address this issue: “families have a choice in where to send their child to school, we should constantly ensure that they think we are the best choice for them by listening to complaints and concerns”
One of the simple things that a school can do is to conduct an annual school climate survey. Using an instrument like this will help you to understand how parents are perceiving the school and if you strategically utilize a mix of both quantitative and qualitative questions, you can often get at some of the things that are truly frustrating them and making them consider leaving. Oftentimes this might be something that is easily remedied, but nobody on staff realized it was such a source of frustration.
However, don’t do a school climate survey unless you are willing and prepared to release the data with your action plan to address their feedback. Asking their opinions and then sitting on the data will not build the trusting relationship that you are trying to accomplish here.
“Nobody is in charge of enrollment.”
Enrollment is too important to be run by a committee or to have people with very nebulous sets of responsibilities supporting student enrollment. Let’s use an analogy – if you lost your Spanish teacher for a year, you wouldn’t say “Hey everybody, you all support this Spanish class. Or, Mrs. Principal, in addition to all of your responsibilities, can you take on teaching 6th grade Spanish as well?” No. You would hire a person dedicated to teaching Spanish.
Every university has a Chief Enrollment Officer whose responsibility is to ensure that they are attracting enough students to that school. They know that at the end of the day, there needs to be somebody who is responsible and accountable for ensuring that they enroll their target number of students. And they all have a specific number target!
Change this statement to something like; “Mary is our school’s director of admissions, but she works closely with the district’s chief enrollment officer to ensure that we are attracting enough students.”
“We have never done that before.”
How many times have you heard this at your school? Heck, how many times have you heard it today? Schools by their nature do not adapt to change easily. It is understandable, the stakes of providing a high level of education to their students is not one that they take lightly.
However, schools are much more flexible than many of them give themselves credit for. Over the past year, our schools were able to quickly pivot from a teaching approach (in-person), to full virtual, to hybrid, to finally in-person but wearing masks. Yes, it wasn’t easy. Yes, mistakes were made, but schools rose to the challenge. Adopting some of the techniques and strategies of strategic enrollment marketing may at first pass feel weird and outside of what you “normally do”, but soon, it will become second nature.
Instead of being afraid to try, tell yourself, “I am going to make mistakes, but doing something is better than doing nothing”
Henry Ford had a great saying, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are right”. Building a strong enrollment function at your school or district might first require you to jettison some old ways of thinking that might be holding you back from improving your marketing and recruiting.