Running Your School: Managing Enrollment
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 other related matters. ~Rob
1. My school's enrollment is declining. I can't afford a marketing professional. What should I do?
It’s important to understand what a school means when it says that it can’t afford a marketing professional. Here are some guiding questions:
- Does it mean that they don’t have an in-house marketing person?
- Does it mean that 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 get clarity on the main reason why their school’s enrollment is declining. Each reason has its own solution. Reasons include:
- Declining student age population within the geographical region.
- Growing competition due to:
- New schools popping up in the area.
- Existing schools expanding aggressively.
- Deteriorating ratings and feedback about the school’s programs, leading to a rise in negative reviews and word-of-mouth, which discourage 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 make every issue go away.
If a school has a good reputation but happens to be located in an area where there are fewer student-age population, there is not much marketing can do. 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, for example, gifted learning or special education needs.
Likewise, if a school has become complacent and stopped looking inward to offer what’s best for students, then investing in more marketing is just going to expose the flaws even more. Fundamentally, the school must offer good programs for the students it serves and the school must believe in it.
If the reason for the decline in enrollment is due to growing competition or the decline in 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.
Having said that, hiring a marketing professional is not always going to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. If you have yet to even build a system online that channels inquiries to your school, then your first step is to build 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 the plan within your team.
This takes time, so the earlier you start, the better. I would recommend any school just starting out on social media and search engine marketing to 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 Heads of School and Directors of Marketing face. His website offers several valuable resources for schools to start marketing online.
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 definitely accelerate the speed at which a school builds their own 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.
A consultant, on the other hand, 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.
There are technicalities around the ad buying process on mega platforms like Facebook and Google that would take a beginner at least 6 months to a year to get really good at it, and that is if they are afforded the time, space, and opportunities to do it full-time. In general, I would recommend that every school and business, for that matter, invest in developing such a talent in the long term, but work with an agency in the short term to bridge that gap.
3. I have an admissions team which resists change and new ideas. How do I handle them in order 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 key 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 KPI or Key Performance Indicators. But I have seen instances where the Head of School revealed just how dire the situation looks, 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, they also feel like they’re part of an important initiative because the Head of School confided in them.
4. Our immediate need is 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 a marketing consultant. This is because the long-term strategy requires a consultant to do a deep dive into what’s happening on the ground as well as the plans and future expectations of the city.
As mentioned earlier, it is really key to know exactly what the reason behind the decline in enrollment is. Marketing is not always the right solution. The opposite is also true. I have seen several private schools refuse to invest in marketing because they see it as a cost center. But this has changed with platforms like Facebook and Google. Marketing can drive real bottom-line business results. By the way, this was a true story which happened 2 years ago. Last year, they were sold to a larger chain.
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