Emphasizing enrollment in a changing education environment
November 3, 2020
The Change Agent
Bright Minds Marketing
To inform educators how to become "customer focused" and use the uniqueness of their school to attract and retain students.
Are you telling your school’s story? Guest Nick LeRoy, Founder and President of Bright Minds Marketing, examines the rise in school choice and its effect on recruitment and enrollment, providing detailed ways schools can be competitive and transition into more “customer centric” organizations.
Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.
Welcome to the podcast ChangeAgents in K-12. Today I have a really interesting guest for us and a little bit of background. Um, I did a podcast interview recently with a superintendent of a really high performing district in the United States, and he talked a lot about open enrollment and in his state, the need for marketing school districts, customer service, and the competition that exists, uh, in this particular state. So I thought it'd be fantastic to bring in an expert in working with schools and districts, uh, around marketing. And today we have Nick LeRoy, who is the president and principal consultant for bright minds marketing. This is a marketing consulting firm focused on helping Catholic charter, private and public schools reach their enrollment goals through more effective marketing since its inception bright minds marketing has worked with over 80 schools around the nation to improve their student enrollment. Nick is a regular speaker and blogger on how schools can improve their enrollment and has provided training programs for the Indiana department of ed American Federation of children, national Catholic education association, and the, and the list goes on and on folks, um, prior to establishing bright minds marketing, Nick was the executive director of the Indiana charter school boards, where he oversaw a diverse portfolio of 19 schools. And before shifting to education, Nick had a distinguished 15 year career as a global marketing executive in the pharmaceutical industry. Nick has an MBA in marketing from Emory university, a BA in history from the university of Utah and he and his family live in Indianapolis with his two boys. So welcome Nick LeRoy to ChangeAgents in K-12.
Awesome. Well, I am really looking forward to our conversation because I, as I noted my opening remarks, I was, my interest was really peaked about marketing and for schools. And so, um, I'm ready to jump into this. So first off, what changes in the marketplace had made recruiting students more challenging?
Yeah. And you know, Chris, that's a question. I get a lot from schools when I talked to them they were like, gosh, it seems like it just gets harder and harder every year. And, and you know, it really is. And you know, there's a number of changes that are happening, you know, broadly in our society. Um, as well as an education that is making recruiting a little bit more challenging, you know, um, one of the biggest ones I think is the demographic changes that the United States is going through, you know, back in 2008, um, our birth rates peaked, you know, and then, you know, 2008 was right when we hit the, uh, the great recession and people, their economic situation was fragile, they decided to delay having kids. And so you started to see a declining birth rate now in the midst of COVID, I think we're seeing people do the exact same thing. So what we're finding right now is we're at the lowest birth rate in 35 years. So there's fewer kids. And the other thing that's contributing to that is families. You know, when I grew up a family of three, a family of five was not unusual, but more and more you're seeing families have one child, maybe two, maybe three. So in addition to there being fewer kids to get your numbers, you're having to recruit more families. Um, and so you're kind of doubling the work and then the, the final kind of demographic thing I think is happening. And I've seen a lot here in Indiana and it probably is playing out in a lot of rural States is you're seeing shifting of population. So if you're a rural superintendent, you're just dealing with people in your area because there's not as many jobs or economic opportunities, that's making it harder to recruit, um, and to fill your school. I think there's, there's also some attitudinal changes that are happening society, you know, um, I think anybody who deals with parents will tell you that the millennial parents are different from say the generation X parents, you know, probably more demanding. Um, we didn't have the phrase Karen when I was growing up. So I, I think you're, you're seeing, um, uh, parents who have a distrust for authority and a desire to have everything proven to them. And it's, it's just getting, uh, you know, it's just a different type of dynamic that, that you're having there. You know, and when I work with my religious school clients, you're seeing an increasing secularization in society. And so as millennials turn away from authority figures, they're turning away from organized religion as well. And so the value proposition of a religious based education, um, is decreasing as well. So I think you're seeing kind of those two more demographic issues that are impacting, um, school enrollment. You know, one of the other factors I think you see is obviously increased competition. You know, again, you know, 20, 30 years ago, there were no such things as charter schools. And so you're seeing a huge explosion in charter schools around the country. I think it was somewhere around 45 States now allow, um, charter schools which are providing, uh, uh, uh, the credible option to the traditional public schools. You're seeing more and more voucher type programs or scholarship programs that are happening in States. Uh, Indiana, my state, has one of the largest voucher programs, which really allows private schools to, um, be an option for families regardless of income. And, you know, you're seeing a huge increase in homeschool. You know, the, the data's not great on tracking the rise of homeschool, but anecdotally we're seeing that increase a lot, especially, you know, upon some of the, the COVID thing. So I think people are realizing that they have a lot of different choices in, in where they send their, their children. I think there's some economic issues at play as well. You know, again, I think we're going to be in a challenging economic time for the next few years, which that has the potential for private schools to take an in, uh, impact because again, people are getting, they don't have the money they're getting squeezed. Private school tuition could be seen as more of a luxury compared to the free public charter school. And so I think, you know, the economy being the way it is, might impact private schools. It might benefit traditional public schools, you don't. And I think the, the one that, that is probably closest to most of the people in the schools who are, who can feel it and taste it and touch it is this explosion of marketing channels. You know, 10 years ago, you threw up a website, you had a few open houses, uh, maybe a direct mail or something. And, and that was all you needed to do, but now you have to be engaged on Instagram. You have to be using Twitter and all the different myriad, um, things that go into social media, which has just made though the job of a school communicator or school enrollment professional, that much more challenging. So I think a lot of those changes are, you know, these are just changes that have happened that are affecting all types of schools.
Yeah. Wow. What a plethora of, of changes for a school leaders to, to navigate. Yeah. You know, these, all these marketing, uh, changes in the marketplace. I, I read a study in preparation by Snyder at all 2019 publication. And they reported that 30% of kids in the nation currently attend a school other than their geographical school in terms of where they live or what we'll call the neighborhood school. And that kind of blew my mind 30%. Wow.
Yeah. That's interesting. I mean, I think you're seeing that, you know, people are voting with their feet, you know, they, parents, parents want choice. Parents want to be able to choose what's right for their children and, you know, as a free market guy, I think they should have that choice.
Yeah. Now, no. Okay. So I'm a little biased because I am a, a school marketer, but again, I think one of the biggest things that schools need to, um, accept and appreciate is that enrollment needs to be a source of focus and emphasis for every type of school. Um, one of the things that if you look at the data, the number one reason why a charter school will fail is declining enrollment. And I think it's very easy to make the case of the reason why you consolidate or traditional public district or private schools fail. It all comes back to enrollment because that's where your that's gotta be a source of focus and concentration for, for your school. I think specifically when it comes to say like a traditional public school, I think one of the most dangerous mindsets that traditional public schools have is that it's some way they are, um, the kids are theirs or the kids just should go to their school. And I think you, you mentioned, you know, um, your, the, your previous guests, um, and how successful they've been. So yeah, I, I think that one of the things that, that public schools need to understand and recognize is that there's no child that they have to try to attract, um, students, uh, parents, nobody is stealing their kids instead, this is just a marketplace where you have to compete and you have to compete in the fashion that makes parents and students believe that your school system is the best. And, you know, it's interesting, um, you know, Indiana publishes reports, we have, uh, open districts here. And one of the things that was interesting is that the more students who are leaving their home district, they're not going to charters and they're not going to private schools. The vast majority are going to other traditional public schools. So in a way, who is your competition there? So, so I think again, they have to, they have to make enrollment a priority and, and, you know, I get it. Um, nobody got into education to be very excited about doing, um, student recruitment. Nope. Nobody wants to do that. Um, very few of my clients I meet with are very excited that they have to, um, spend time away from the classroom and working on student enrollment, but that's just the nature of it. You know, um, you have to, um, be out there marketing new school, because if you don't someone else who is marketing in their school will, will become a much more attractive proposition for, for those families. So, and so I think understanding the, how important enrollment is, is one of the critical mind shifts that, um, the schools need to undertake in this competitive marketplace.
Well, you know, it's interesting Chris, because the, the private schools, um, have been ahead, you know, in this fashion and most of them will have more of a dedicated enrollment person. You also see that at state like the, um, the private, the Catholic high schools will generally have that very few. Um, elementeries in like the Catholic schools have a dedicated person. This is usually piled on the poor principal who already has so many other things on her plate. And now they're asking her to do this as well. Um, I think you're starting to see least in some, um, more innovative, more forward-looking traditional public school systems that they're recognizing this, and they're saying, Hey, we need to make some investment here. And we need to, um, be much more of an outwardly facing organization and try to recruit. So I think you're, you're starting to see it, but I think it's, it's slowly happening.
Gotcha. So I'm going to take that as not very many at this point and more need to think about it. Definitely. So wow with, with all those shifts needed, so what can schools do and what can districts and leaders do to respond to this?
Yeah, I think the first thing is acknowledge that there's a problem. I mean, don't, we always say that that's the first step is acknowledging the problem and it's not going away. I mean, these demographic shifts are not going away. The different mind set that a millennial has is not going away the explosion of social media channels, it's not going away. And so the only thing that we can do is we can change our approach. You know, one of the most dangerous things that I think schools fall into is this, well, we've never done it before mindsets. And so they're reluctant to change. And unfortunately, in, in something like this, if you don't change well, you know, the market's going to change it for you. And so you kind of have to change. So I think acknowledging that there is an issue, and it's going to force us to do things a little bit differently is step number one. I think the second thing is to dedicate, um, uh, within your school system, somebody who is solely in charge of recruitment and enrollment at your school, or if you think about it, and I know a school is not a business, but if you think about a business that didn't have anybody in charge of selling the product well, that business would shortly fail. And so I think having a dedicated person for enrollment is critical, but you know, one of the things that I have seen that happens with schools, and I see this happening with like school counselors and I see it happening sometimes with enrollment people, is the scope creep that, well, we don't have someone to plan this thing. So let's just get our, our director of enrollment to do that as well. Um, you know, you see that happening with school counselors all the time, they just become a catchall. So if you, as a school are going to have a dedicated enrollment person, um, just allow them to be solely focused on driving more kids into your school. But I think acknowledging the problem, dedicating a resource to, um, to fixing that problem and then do a little bit of self-reflection think about what is your value proposition, what makes your school better or unique? You know, if, if you were just a very generic school and the school next to you is STEM the school down the street, is arts the school, uh, you know, across the ways of dual language. Well, sometimes it's hard to, to compete. You'd have a very bland and generic offering when everyone else has something that's very special. And so, you know, I think it's really important to understand what are you good at? What sets you apart and really understand kind of what your brand is as a school?
Yeah, that makes sense. I, I think like you said, a lot of, uh, educators have never been trained in marketing obviously, and, and they shouldn't be shy about telling their story and, and building some of that brand awareness and be really, really proud and excited about the great things they're doing. Cause I think all schools have have that story. W would you agree?
I would completely agree. And there is something that happens at your school that does set you apart or something, the parents, if they knew about it would go, wow. And that's the thing is, is finding that story and telling your story, a lot of magic happens at your school, but the question is, are you telling that story enough? Okay. And a lot of times schools are somewhat inwardly facing and they don't spend enough time bragging about their school. And that's okay. You know, if you're not bragging about your school, maybe no one else is, you know, so it's okay to brag about your school. So, so knowing who you are, I think is a critical thing, but then do you have the means to, um, tell everyone else who you are? And I think this is one thing where schools need to invest in some marketing assets to be able to, um, to, uh, tell prospective parents the wonderful things that are happening in your school. And so, you know, that that involves spending more time and effort ensuring that you have a really strong, um, school website, school, social media profiles, you know, these things that somebody who doesn't currently attend the school can look at and say, Hey, this is, this is a place that I want to, I want to send my children. And, and, and I think that's, that's a critical thing. Can I, can I soap box a little bit here, Chris, on the, on the website?
So one of the things that I think is critical for schools to think about when they're designing a school website is an appreciation that the website is your, your chief marketing assets. You have many vehicles, email, phone calls, texts, what have you, that you can use to communicate to your existing parents? The website is really the only one that you have to communicate your story to perspective parents. But, you know, I go on many school websites and I see about, you know, 95% of the content is all about here's the lunch menu, here's the athletic schedule, all of these things that are oriented towards the current parent and very, very little towards the prospective parents.
Well, and that, you know, personally, that impacted us. I mean, we made the decision this year because of COVID to change schools for my oldest son. And so we, we pulled him out of, of his, uh, parochial school. And I looked at the, um, our, our traditional public school, but I looked on my mobile phone because, you know, like most people, that's what I use all my internet to access the internet and their site wasn't even optimized for mobile. So I was, you know, squeezing and pinching and things like that to try to find information about enrollment, but eventually I just gave up, um, you know, it's 2020 mobile traffic surpassed desktop traffic about three years ago. So if you're a school whose website is not even mobile optimized, just understand that a lot of parents are looking at your website through their mobile phone and you're providing a very poor experience for them. But that, that just kind of speaks Chris to this, um, to this lack of, of a customer focus. But I think a lot of times schools, um, currently have they, they don't think of how do we become a customer centric organization. Right, right. So, so I think, I think, you know, a customer centric organization is, is kind of the, the future I think for schools and, you know, and it, and it's tough because schools tend not to think of, of their parents or their students as customers. Um, but I think that's not necessarily a bad, a bad way of looking at things. I think it's, um, I think it's good to say, are we satisfying? Our parents, are we delivering a strong experience to our students? Are we doing everything that we can to ensure that they're happy here and that they want to tell their friends to, to, uh, enroll their children here? That's what being a customer centric organization is about. It's about saying, are we doing everything that we can every day to try to ensure that we're delivering the best service to our parents and then telling them that we're delivering the best service to, to, to them. Because that's one thing that I see a lot of schools struggle with is that communication. You don't a lot of times there's some magic happening in the classroom, but if the school's not telling the parents that that magic is happening, a lot of times, the parents just don't know. So I think, I think schools taking a good, strong look at their communication practices and seeing are they doing everything in their power to communicate to parents, all the great things that are happening, um, is a critical step for schools to take.
Yeah, it's, you know, and it takes me back to our earlier comments, you know, 30% of students have gone somewhere else from their neighborhood school. I think historically, would you agree that schools have looked at their families as well? There are, as we all know them, you know, they can't go anywhere. And so they didn't think about these families as actual customers that are shopping. Yeah.
And that's a really good point. You know, Chris, you can't go to home Depot or Lowe's or a fast food place and get the receipt without being asked to fill out a survey and say, how, how did we get, you know, and a lot of times it's just a single question, one to 10 sort of thing. But, you know, I remember when I was a brand manager working in pharmaceuticals, we would always survey our customers. How are we doing? Are we making you happy? What could we do differently? You know? And it's, um, it's, it's sometimes it, it shocks me how infrequently schools utilize surveys in order to be able to reach out to their parents and ask, are you happy? Are we doing a good job? You know, and not only reaching out to, to their parents, but then also reaching out to their faculty and saying, Hey, are you happy here? Do you feel valued? Are you being, um, uh, developed appropriately from a professional learning experience? I mean, every, every school is struggling to retain good quality teachers. Wouldn't you want to regularly be surveying your teachers about how happy they are.
Yeah, absolutely. That's a great point. And Nick, I'm wondering too, that as part of this marketing customer experience that embracing really great technology at, uh, at the school and district level is really important as part of the recruitment and enrollment process.
Yeah. And that's one thing I think schools are slow to embrace technology. And I think part of that is just that we've never done it before sort of mentality, but I think it's really important for schools too, to think about how they can use technology to deliver, uh, a more efficient, uh, operations, as well as how can they use it to deliver a better customer experience? You know, I'll, I'll give you a personal example again, you know, we changed schools this year and that's the first time in seven years that I've done a registration process and it was, um, it was incredibly challenging. You know, I had to, I had to drop off papers. I had to make photocopies. I had to, you know, I had to dig through stuff and, and I understand a lot of that is due to, you know, state requirements and things like that, but it was shocking, Chris, that I can, I can enter into a mortgage and I can do all that from my phone, but yet I have to, you know, do all of these steps and jump through all of these hoops in order to register my kid for school. And, you know, I know that there were a number of technological innovations that make this a much more customer friendly process. Um, uh, you know, I, I know SchoolMint offers offer some solutions on that, you know, it's, it's part of recognizing, Hey, how can we make this easier for the people that we serve? How do we make it easy for families to come to our school? I think having that mindset of how do we make it easy is the first step in being the preferred choice.
Yeah, absolutely. And, and I think making it easy, also touches on the equity issue that, you know, maybe people with limited means, um, you know, there, it's going to be more difficult for them and having a great online platform would be so, so helpful to them. I'm also thinking Nick about, you know, the single mom with four kids or, you know, whatever, and they have to do all these forms over and over for all of their kids. I mean, it should all be unified and all the data goes in one place and, and just make it efficient for folks. They just don't have a lot of time for this.
Yeah, exactly. And, and I think schools need to adopt the approach of this may be more difficult for us, but if we're making it easy for our parents, that's our ultimate goal. And so how do we make it easier for our parents? And I think that then, um, you know, speaks to that issue that you talked about with equity, you know, because everybody can benefit from a more, an easier process.
Yeah, absolutely. And along the lines of equity, would you agree that having a, you know, a software platform optimized for enrollment that, you know, if, if there are, uh, lotteries for limited seats and certain programs, or if they're date deadlines and all these things, it can all just kind of be taken care of. And the parent is, um, you know, kept abreast of what's going on.
Yeah. That's one of the critical things. I mean, again, I think we have to appreciate that for, for some people, um, you know, they're, they're struggling with all the demands of their daily life. You know, you mentioned the single mom, you know, who has a lot of competing demands. She wants what's best for her children, but may not be able to devote the same amount of attention as a, you know, upper middle class family could. So if we're, you know, reminding her and trying to ensure that she has the same opportunities, you know, then we're kind of nudging her along to say, Hey, just a reminder, the, the lottery is coming up. You're still not submitted everything, you know, to get Johnny into school. That's a good thing. I mean, for some of these folks, we have to help them a little bit, but everybody can benefit if schools just take a little bit more proactive approach and helping them and make their processes a little bit easier. And I think technology really allows us to do that.
Yeah. And, you know, Nick, would you agree that, uh, the technology can also improve or, or, or deliver some financial savings to, to districts and schools in certain respects, and also because of efficiencies with, you know, uh, administrative efficiencies and manner, you don't have to manage paper and file cabinets and et cetera, that they, it can help the process from that perspective.
Well, what's, what's interesting, Chris, is that, you know, I hand write on these forms and then, um, some administrative assistant at the school has to try to decipher my handwriting and type it in. Is there a way just to skip that middleman and allow me to type in the accurate information? So we don't have errors, we don't have all the labor of having to type all that stuff in now. No, again, that's one person's example, but imagine you're a school district of, of, you know, 15, 20,000, just think about all of the extra labor that's in there, because we're using antiquated processes. Again, technology, as it relates to business operations, I think needs to really be a focus for schools in terms of improving the customer experience.
It, it, it, it, it does. I mean, how do you make it easy, you know, look at Amazon, you know, and I think Amazon is a wonderful marketing example, but Amazon has made it almost too easy, but they've made it very easy to buy products from them. And so if we, you know, kind of adopt Amazon's mantra of make it as easy as possible for our customers, more of them will buy from us.
Yeah. How true. I'm definitely guilty of that daily. Um, what will Nick, um, this has really been a fascinating discussion, and I know that our school leaders and district leaders listening are really going to learn a lot from this. Um, are you okay if they reach out to you and what is your website where you can continue the conversation with folks?
Yeah, of course. Thanks Chris. Um, so bright minds, marketing.com is the website. Um, I actually just launched a brand new website today, so, so excited for people to go out and have a look at that. There's also an opportunity for people to sign up for a newsletter. Um, and I send out, you know, uh, every couple of weeks I send out tips on just how to market your school more effectively. And, and I think there's a lot of good content in there and it's free, you know, so this helps, uh, school leaders understand some small changes that they could make to their operations to hopefully attract more students to their school.
No math, um, and there are no right or wrong answers. So I say two things and you tell us which one you prefer, and you can share some color commentary about why you prefer one thing, but that's not required. So I think I know the answer to this dog or cat,?
Uh, I'm a hiker, you know, I, I grew up in, in Utah originally, and it's just a state with a lot of hiking, uh, opportunities. Uh, I enjoy taking my boy to boy Scouts. So I'm going to go with hiking there.
Okay. That sounds good. I can, I can go with that. So, um, again, um, I want to thank Nick LeRoy, uh, president of bright minds marketing for really sharing some fantastic information with us. Thanks again Nick.
You've been listening to the ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Be sure to subscribe, so you never miss a show and follow us on social media. Remember our brightest years are still ahead. See you next time.