The COVID-19 pandemic created a financial strain for many private-independent school families. This financial stress, combined with uncertainty about whether schools would be open for in-person learning this school year, led many schools to project weak enrollment and retention numbers to start the 2020–21 school year.
But as schools—public and private—gained clarity from their local officials and decided about reopening or not this fall, many private schools experienced a dramatic enrollment trend reversal.
ISM Consultants have worked with many school Admission and Marketing Directors who enjoyed surprising spikes in their inquiries and applications during the late summer months. And, while this may seem like encouraging news, we caution against premature excitement.
If your school enrolls families that are fleeing public schools for perceived safety reasons or because you provide a learning option (in-person or hybrid) that their current school does not, are they really choosing your school because they believe in its mission and values?
Will these families, that may not have considered a private school before the pandemic, stay with your school beyond the 2020–21 school year?
In other words, are the families you admitted in the late stages of summer truly mission-appropriate families? Or are they signing up for a not-so-free “trial subscription” with every intention of canceling when the pandemic inevitably subsides?
Beware the Budget Mistake
The challenge here is that you must be extremely cautious not to inflate your future enrollment goals based on this crisis.
ISM has witnessed the pitfalls of the artificial enrollment bump in our consulting work with schools. A classic example of this is when an area competitor school closes and its families must find a new school.
During this crisis, some families will try to remain with their public schools, but others will enroll in area private schools. This can be an incredible boon for schools that take on these disenfranchised families.
But, be careful. Consider their objectives: Did these families choose the new school because it’s the right fit for their child or because it’s the best fit right now?
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Time and again, schools that experience enrollment increases plan for—and unwisely spend for—these additional students. However, they find that over the next few years, these families withdraw at higher attrition rates than average, and negatively impact a school’s word-of-mouth marketing efforts. When this happens, it can create a deficit budget and dire financial circumstances.
We understand that, for many schools, taking a chance on these pandemic-driven families may be critical to their financial sustainability. By no means do we suggest avoiding the enrollment of families who are seeking shelter from this (or another) storm.
However, proceed with caution and plan appropriately. Do not assume that the bump you may experience now is a sign of future fortunes.
We recommend that you don't increase your overall enrollment goal based on pandemic-related admits. Remember that one year does not make a trend. Careful analysis and projections based on at least three years of funnel, enrollment, and retention data are the key to your school’s stability – throughout the pandemic and beyond.
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Strategic Financial Planning: A Comprehensive Approach