It Pays to Retreat

It Pays to Retreat

By Quentin McDowell, Senior Associate Director of Admission & Financial Aid, Mercersburg Academy (PA); Assistant Director, The Erdmann Institute
From The Yield, Spring 2015

We all know that the traditional admission cycle, complete with “peak seasons” and reliable windows of relief, has given way to a year-round effort to recruit and enroll the strongest candidates for our schools.

Time has become a limited resource, but making the effort to bring your office together periodically throughout the year can prove to be invaluable as you seek to unify messaging, implement new strategies, and collectively determine how your school will maintain relevance and, most importantly, resonate with the marketplace.

About seven years ago, with the arrival of a new director, Tommy Adams, we began to set aside a minimum of one day, three times each year, to retreat as a full group, inclusive of all officers and administrative support staff. This happens just prior to the start of the school year, again just before the winter holidays, and finally at the conclusion of the school year in June. Although not designed to replace regular staff meetings, making the time to meet as a full group has allowed us to focus on a wide range of topics, all of which can differ slightly depending on the time of the year.

Our retreats do address some consistent themes. For example, time is always allotted to reflect on the past several months’ work as well as to discuss marketing initiatives, event planning, and enrollment updates. Depending on the time of year, however, the other points of discussion can be quite varied.

In our first retreat of the year before the start of school, time is always made to discuss the inquiry-to-enrollment sequence in detail, to ensure that all stakeholders understand how we plan to manage the admission process for families in the coming year. There also is a full review of upcoming events (e.g. registration days, open houses, receptions, etc.), the travel calendar, changes to office policies or procedures, and a discussion of what goals and objectives our office wants to achieve over the next 12 months.

The mid-year meeting has traditionally been scheduled following the departure of students for the winter break. Along with addressing any housekeeping items, this retreat is a good time to provide feedback on fall travel, share thoughts on the effectiveness of on- and off-campus events, discuss the structure of admission and financial aid committees, and begin to fine tune plans for revisit days.

Finally, just after students depart for the summer, two days are dedicated to comprehensive talks on all facets of admission work. Unique to this retreat is the assigning of small groups to tackle projects over the summer ranging from updating the application and our approach to campus visits to rethinking the parent caller network to maximizing international travel. The hope is to use the quieter summer months to address a number of targeted tasks and to report on findings or suggested changes at the end-of-summer gathering.

Although retreats are highly useful ways for offices to bring everyone up to speed on initiatives and to ensure the success of new ideas and recruitment efforts, they also are real opportunities to dig in and talk big picture. At least two or three hours of every retreat we hold are dedicated to deeper thinking as a group. Vital issues such as defining the value proposition, unifying messaging, and working to discover what truly differentiates our school are always on the agenda. These conversations are some of the most fun and interesting, but also demand the highest-level engagement and disciplined discussion.

Whether we meet for practical or strategic purposes, we have found that it always pays to retreat.

Sample Retreat Exercise: Discovering the Wants, Needs, & Fears

When evaluating our markets we often only think about what prospective families want—the checklist of items that will make them choose to enroll in one of our schools. What we commonly overlook are the real decision drivers—needs and fears. Families may be aware that they need certain things, but it is also our responsibility to educate them on the value of the independent school education and, as it frequently turns out, many come to realize they actually need much more of what we offer. Equally important, it is paramount to understand the fears that may exist for both parents and students considering an independent school education.

As you engage in the following exercise, it is important to note two things. First, the conversation about reaching potential parents is going to be different than the one regarding connecting with prospective students. Second, while there are some universal wants, needs, and fears for prospective families, these fears can also differ slightly depending on the market you are addressing. You need to consider, among other things, the family’s location, demographic background, history of independent school education, etc.

Exercise:

Step 1: Make sure everyone on your team shares common definitions for each term—wants, needs, and fears.

Step 2: Split your office into two groups, mixing genders, experience level, and roles in the office.

Step 3: Ask each group to collectively consider the wants, needs, and fears of the prospective parents as well as prospective students in your primary markets.

Step 4: Bring the entire group together and discuss your findings. This can be impactful on many levels. For example, it can help to align everyone’s understanding of the common decision drivers for the families you work with as well as generate good discussion on how to craft messaging and implement more effective recruitment strategies