It’s been three years since EMA conducted our first prospective parent research study, and it is hard to believe how much has changed since then, as we’ve received the findings of our second effort in 2017. While certain family experiences over these years have remained the same, we’ve also seen a marked change in the perceptions and concerns in the minds of those considering independent schools.
School leaders need to take note and work quickly to address these concerns if our community hopes to enroll full classes of students in the future. The research underpinning our 2017 Ride to Independent Schools report has raised several complex questions in the minds of EMA’s team: What are the role and future of social media in the independent school admission and enrollment process? How does the independent school community address troubling “brand identity” issues, suggesting that families are unable to differentiate among other K-12 choice options for their children? What should our community do to address the growing worries about financing an independent school education, reported by parents of all means (including the very affluent)?
In a series of blog posts, I’ll take a closer look at what 2,700+ parents told our researchers in 2017. We’ll look at what has changed inside the independent school admission process for families since 2014 (our original report), as well as what’s remained the same in terms of their perceptions and experiences. It’s my hope that this new report will give voice to prospective family concerns, allow independent school leaders to improve our approach to messaging the value of independent school educational offerings and address key questions in the minds of our next generation of “investors” in the independent school experience.
Lesson One: Communicate, communicate, communicate!
A key finding in both Ride reports is that families expect a high level of communication throughout their journey with our schools. Though the methods of communication with families have changed somewhat since 2014, what we’ve heard from parents has stayed the same: they expect timely and personalized communications throughout the school consideration and application process. And it doesn’t stop after a student enrolls, as we know families expect the same deep communication throughout their time in your school.
So what should independent schools do to build stronger communication channels with prospective families? The 2017 survey shows that parents conduct research online to better understand independent schools options, yet their most trusted source of information is other parents who have experience with your school. Yes, even in 2017, the word-of-mouth network is the main source of developing a strong prospect channel into your school! Given that prospective families trust advertising claims less and less, it’s clear that independent schools need to do more to activate current parents as our best ambassadors in building enrollment! Indeed, 31% of prospective parents told us that their experience with one of your school’s parents activated their interest. Cultivating positive energy and excitement among your current parent body pays big dividends to your enrollment goals.
What sources are prospective parents using to research and understand your school’s offerings? School websites play a key role in your admission process; one-quarter of the 2017 survey respondents said that school websites were their primary means of researching school options. Further, 33% of respondents told us that they were motivated by the website to complete a general online inquiry form to begin a conversation with schools of interest. Individual websites were also cited as the second most effective post-visit touch point for learning more about independent schools. Trends reported in the wider media sphere suggest that today’s millennial parents are also strong consumers of video (YouTube is one of their go-to resources!) and it is incumbent for school leaders to prioritize the ongoing development and fresh updates on their website in order to drive repeated visits from families.
It isn’t just about what you communicate to families, it’s also about how you communicate with them. 68% of survey respondents said that having personal time with the admission officer was an extremely/very important factor in deciding whether or not to apply to that school. Additionally, significantly more respondents in 2017 (42% compared to 29% in 2014) report that attending a class was an important part of their decision to apply to a particular school. Clearly, independent school admission officers have addressed the growing need for families to authentically experience their school’s program, and it’s been an important effort to bring families closer to the school.
Indeed, families report that the academic program is a critical factor in their decision to send their children to a particular school. Yet all too often, we also hear that independent schools have not clearly defined and articulated their unique educational model. How well are your academic programs detailed on the school website and in collateral pieces? Are you highlighting the expertise of your faculty and, in particular, distinguishing programs? Do you publish outcomes data to demonstrate the value of your academic program? Clearly, academics count, and demonstrating to prospective families the strengths of a school’s academic program—and how it cultivates lifelong learning—is critical to enrollment success.
Bring them back.
While most respondents felt the amount of follow-up communication they received after the in-person visit met expectations, 23% complained that they received too little attention from the admission office. No families told our researchers that they received too much attention from admission officers! This suggests that there is room for our schools to build a more compelling and well-sequenced communication plan that includes not only prospective families but also current families you want to retain. Don’t skimp on the additional effort it will take to enroll a family! 87% of prospective parents indicate that their revisit day was extremely effective in influencing which school was the right fit.
Make this offer of a revisit clear to parents and students from the beginning of their admission process and ensure that every detail of your revisit day, from well-trained tour guides to the cleanliness of your campus, is on point. (Indeed, several of the most troubling comments in our research came from parents who detailed poor management of these experiences, and horrific customer service stories of their time spent in a school not focused on their interests!)
What should school leaders do with the findings of our report?
- Educate your community and adopt a whole-school admission mindset. Develop a list of activities in which other departments, administrators, faculty, and families/students can participate to help personalize interactions with prospective families and ensure positive word of mouth. (If this is an area of trouble for your school, call EMA! We’ve conducted numerous in-service days for schools to help faculty understand their role in building positive impressions!)
- Put a Spotlight on Your Colleagues. Ask faculty and department heads to assist the administration in describing their program, philosophy, and special experiences that distinguish your school from others. Share online profiles and videos of your best teachers and invite families to a master class with your best teachers!
- Prioritize Your Website. Make sure that your website reflects the clear language and tone you want to communicate throughout your admission process. Ensure that you have fresh, compelling information to draw families back, time and again. Use social media to boost return visits to your website.
- Detail Your Custom Communications Plan to ensure that prospective families feel that they are receiving personal attention. This may include weekly “touches” and several face-to-face opportunities before the end of your enrollment journey with them
In the end, while most independent schools have met family expectations, according to The Ride’s findings, we recognize that expectations are mounting when it comes to prospective families considering independent schools for their children. In the “raw data” portion of our survey, we invited parents to share personal stories of their experiences in visiting our schools, and found it’s clear that our community needs to better embrace the behaviors surrounding strong customer service if we hope to continue to enroll today’s parents and students. The survey findings confirm what EMA has been saying for some time: “Admission practices of the past will not sustain the independent schools of the future.” It’s time to up our game in communications and marketing to win the hearts and minds of this next generation of parents.