Running Your School: Managing Enrollment

Running Your School: Managing Enrollment
Not filling all the seats is a challenge for many schools. Jason How offers some answers to common enrollment questions.
Jason How

Editor's note: I asked Jason How, a professional enrollment strategist and Managing Director of Agency J, to answer some of my questions about achieving enrollment targets and related matters. ~Rob

1. My school's enrollment is declining. I can't afford a marketing professional. What should I do?

Understanding what a school means when it can't afford a marketing professional is essential. Here are some guiding questions:

  • Does it mean that they don't have an in-house marketing person?
  • Does it mean they can't afford to hire an extra pair of hands?
  • If it can't afford to hire outside help, is it because the administration made certain assumptions about the cost of hiring a marketing professional?

Once we understand what the school means, the next thing is to clarify why their school's enrollment is declining. Each reason has its solution. Reasons include:

  • Declining student age population within the geographical region.
  • Growing competition due to:
    • New schools are popping up in the area.
    • Existing schools are expanding aggressively.
    • Deteriorating ratings and feedback about the school's programs lead to a rise in negative reviews and word-of-mouth, discouraging others from attending the school (true story).
  • Over-reliance on a single marketing and enrollment source.

It's important to get clarity on the main reason for the decline because marketing is not a magic pill that can solve every issue.

If a school has a good reputation but happens to be located in an area with fewer student-age population, there is not much marketing that can be done. Parents are not going to drive beyond 10 to 15 miles to send their children to a school, except for children who need to attend certain schools for specific reasons, such as gifted learning or special education needs.

Likewise, if a school has become complacent and stopped looking inward to offer what's best for students, investing in more marketing will expose the flaws even more. Fundamentally, the school must provide reasonable programs for the students it serves, and it must believe in them.

If the decline in enrollment is due to growing competition or the decline in the effectiveness of existing marketing channels, then the school must absolutely recognize the issue at hand, take an honest look at its finances, cut unnecessary costs, and invest in marketing because it won't have better alternatives.

Hiring a marketing professional will not always cost you tens of thousands of dollars. If you have yet to build an online system that channels inquiries to your school, then your first step is to make that component.

You could hire a marketing professional on a consulting basis rather than working with an agency to map out the plan and lend their expertise to execute it within your team.

This takes time, so the earlier you start, the better. I recommend that any school starting out on social media and search engine marketing subscribe to SchneiderB Media. It is the go-to blog for school marketers, founded by Brendan Schneider, the Director of Advancement at Sewickley Academy. Being the "inside guy," Brendan understands the unique challenges that the Head of the School and Director of Marketing face. His website offers several valuable resources for schools to start marketing online.

This video offers a look at a Waldorf classroom.

2. What resources can an enrollment professional bring to our school that we don't already have?

Great question. My team works with private schools in 2 main capacities: an agency that builds and handles paid traffic campaigns to drive student inquiries and consultants who advise schools on how they can execute their paid traffic campaigns via a video teleconference call.

An agency would accelerate the speed at which a school builds its online enrollment inquiry generation system. As an agency, we know exactly what a school needs to bridge potential students and their parents to the school on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Google. If a school does not have a dedicated, in-house marketing team that is trained to build something like that, working with an agency would be highly beneficial as it shortens their learning curve and enables them to start getting enrollment inquiries as early as within the first few weeks after launching their campaigns.

Conversely, a consultant would offer their expertise and provide a school with the guidance necessary to execute their plan. In this arrangement, execution depends on the school's existing resources.

Ad buying on mega-platforms like Facebook and Google involves technicalities. A beginner would need at least six months to a year to become proficient, and that is if they are afforded the time, space, and opportunities to do it full-time. In general, I recommend that every school and business invest in developing such talent in the long term but work with an agency in the short term to bridge that gap.

3. My admissions team resists change and new ideas. How do I handle them to grow our enrollment?

This is another great question because I see this happening all the time. When I compare instances where this situation works out and other instances where it ends with an ugly scene, the critical difference is whether the Head of School is one of the original champions of the initiative; these days, we won't work with schools if the Head of School doesn't give their stamp of approval and support from the beginning.

If you're caught in such a situation, a possible mediation tactic is for the Head of School to speak to everyone in the admissions and marketing team. Most people working in admissions only care about their KPIs or Key Performance Indicators. But I have seen instances where the Head of School revealed just how dire the situation looks and shared their woes with the team, and you could instantly hear the difference in the admissions team's response.

Not only do they realize this can potentially threaten their jobs, but they also feel like they're part of a critical initiative because the Head of School confided in them.

This video offers a look at the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.

4. We need to have every seat filled when school opens. But I am concerned about how things will look in a year or two as a major employer is leaving our metro area next year. Can an enrollment professional help develop both short-term and long-term strategies for us?

Yes, in this case, you definitely want to seek out a strategy consultant rather than a marketing consultant. A long-term strategy requires a consultant to do a deep dive into what's happening on the ground as well as the city's plans and future expectations.

As mentioned earlier, it is vital to know precisely the reason behind the decline in enrollment. Marketing is not always the right solution. The opposite is also true. Several private schools refuse to invest in marketing because they see it as a cost center. However, this has changed with platforms like Facebook and Google. Marketing can drive accurate bottom-line business results. By the way, this was a true story two years ago. Last year, they were sold to a larger chain.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook. @privateschoolreview

#privateschools #enrollment

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