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Leadership is About Breaking Down the Barriers

Kelly Dun


on October 16, 2013

Leadership is About Breaking Down the Barriers

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A few years ago, as we were reviewing our admission process and gearing up for the season, Amy, my associate director, mentioned that our expensive application fee might be a “barrier to entry” for some of our prospective families. Does the income we bring in from application fees impact the school’s budget in a meaningful way? Great question! The answer was “No!” and we quickly reduced the application fee by $10. As a result, we had more applications the next year and actually brought in more application income for the school. Go figure!

The term barrier to entry is a familiar one in the business world. In the context of economic competition, a barrier to entry is an obstacle that makes it difficult to enter a given market. What does that term mean for us as admission officers, as we encourage families to enter our independent school market? Amy and I spent some time discussing potential obstacles for our families trying to apply. The discussion yielded quite a few on our ever-growing list! This led to the long and thoughtful process of revamping our very confusing and labor-intensive application process.

Back when many of our schools had waiting lists and endless numbers of inquiries and applicants (there used to be a time like that, right? Or was that just a dream?), admission offices could ask almost anything of families and they would oblige. Full-day visits, multiple visits, recommendations from everyone they knew, lots and lots of essays for both parents/guardians and applicants, writing samples, graded work, and multiple tests, just to name a few. When I looked at our materials and asked “What do we really need in order to determine whether this child and their family are a good fit for our school?” I was amazed at how many hoops we asked families to jump through. Some of the things we were asking of applicants rarely came up in committee as important criteria for admission.

I recently asked one of my counterparts “Why do you ask for grandparent information on the initial application?” The response, “I’m not sure, we just always have.” I also asked “Why do you need two writing samples from the applicants AND a piece of graded work?” Again the response, “We’ve always done it. I don’t even read most of that now that you mention it.” I suspect that, “We’ve always done it that way” is something I say five times a season. We can’t help it – it is hard to look at our admission processes with fresh eyes when we’ve read our completed application over and over throughout a season.

If you haven’t taken a good look at your application materials yet this year, NOW is the time to do it. In fact, you might ask someone else to look at them and tell you if they find your process time-consuming and/or difficult. It is very easy for us to slip into the mindset of “Well, this is the process we used last year, we might as well use it again.” I challenge you to look at your requirements and see what you can ELIMINATE from the process. Once a family has ENROLLED, then you can ask the questions that other departments are interested in about the enrolled families.

In some cases, the mission of your school requires certain information up front, but if you don’t need it, get rid of it (after all, it means less paper-chasing and reading that you and your committee has to do, too!). If you need to know more about an applicant than your minimum requirements, you can always ask the family for more information. “Mrs. Jones, the committee would like to know more about Johnny’s writing, would you mind if we call his English teacher?” Or “Mrs. Smith, we’d like to meet Alice again to get to know her better. Could you come in, or could we Skype with her some time this week?”

As the country (hopefully) rebounds from these tough economic times, and it remains a “buyer’s market” for our prospective families, let’s remove as many barriers to entry as we can. Make it EASY for a family to start the process.

What are some barriers to entry that you have removed or can remove from your admission process or school requirements to encourage more applications?

Kelly Dun is currently the Director of Enrollment Management and Financial Aid at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth, ME. She is the former Director of Enrollment Management at Princeton Day School. This year,