For most private-independent schools, the COVID-19 crisis hit in the middle of re-enrollment season. And while many schools have reported to ISM that their retention rate is strong despite the pandemic, still others tell us that the rate of return on their re-enrollment contracts is alarmingly low.
Whether you feel cautiously optimistic or deeply concerned about your school’s current retention picture, ISM offers these tips to improve your re-enrollment outlook for the 2020–21 school year.
Activate Your Enrollment Management Team
If you don’t already have an Enrollment Management Team, now’s the time to form one. Create a task force charged with developing specific and personalized re-enrollment strategies. Keep in mind that one size will not fit all and your outreach to early childhood and elementary families may be very different from the way you approach rising ninth graders. For example, grade-level Zoom conversations are an excellent way to allay the concerns of elementary school parents, while a recorded, authentic video message from a beloved Upper School Dean or Administrator is a more effective way to connect with teenagers.
Divide and Conquer
Whether or not a family has re-enrolled, reach out to every one personally. Depending on how many families your school has, this may seem like a daunting—or even impossible—task. However, this is an opportunity for distributed leadership. Provide a call list to all nonteaching personnel, including admission, development, and marketing communications team members, as well as administrative assistants, Business Office personnel, and division directors. These are “check in” calls; the purpose is not to ask why the family hasn’t returned their enrollment contract or submitted their deposit, but rather to check in with each family. How are they feeling? How have they been impacted by the crisis? Create a system for callers to take notes to share with the Admission Director. You will likely get a lot of voicemails. If so, leave a message saying you’ve called to check in, and then follow up with a personal email. If a family expresses concerns or dissatisfaction, assure them that you will forward your notes and the appropriate school employee will promptly follow up. For example, the Business Manager or Admission Director should follow up with financial aid information for any parent who lost a job or shuttered a business due to COVID-19. Again, these follow up communications must be personal and not blanket emails or letters sent en masse.
Extend Re-Enrollment Deadlines
If your re-enrollment deadline has passed, consider re-opening it through the end of the school year. If you are in the midst of re-enrollment, extend the deadline. If your school is in the enviable position of having wait-lists for next year, extend grace (where possible) to returning students and prioritize them over new families who have already missed the deadline.
Expand Your Rainy Day Financial Aid
One of the best ways to support your families that are suffering financially is to increase the “rainy day aid” you offer for the 2020–21 school year. If you have exhausted your financial aid budget, seek approval from the Board to offer current families a one-time grant to help them get through the crisis. While this is an effective strategy to stem attrition during a crisis, it’s vitally important that you 1) insist families go through your usual financial aid process, and 2) clearly communicate to rainy-day aid recipients that this is a one-time grant and that any future awards will require them to re-apply for aid.
Focus on Benefits, Not Features
Social media feeds are overflowing with screen grabs of Zoom classrooms and images of students and teachers in front of their computers. No doubt it’s important to showcase that meaningful teaching and learning is still happening despite the physical barriers we now face—but don’t stop there. Computers, tablets, and Google Chats are merely delivery vehicles and do not on their own tell your school’s story or re-affirm your value proposition with parents. Rather than focus on the features of your remote learning program, shift the narrative to its benefits. How does your school’s response echo and amplify the promise of your mission, your Portrait of the Graduate, and your Characteristics of Professional Excellence for faculty? Growth mindedness, resiliency, collaboration, care and concern for others—find digital ways to feature your faculty, students, and alumni in ways that highlight the values that differentiate your school from all others.
Avoid Special Exceptions
During times of crisis, it may be tempting to “make deals” with loyal families on their payment plans or relax published financial aid processes and procedures in an effort to keep an exceptional high schooler who has scholarship offers from a local competitor. Resist these temptations. Trust and integrity are among our schools’ most valuable commodities. Any changes to your usual business procedures should be made known and available to all. This does not mean awarding rainy-day aid to anyone who requests it, however. Rather, it means establishing and communicating any and all changes to your entire constituency—not just to those who ask.
ISM has long held that re-enrollment is a key indicator of a school’s strength and stability—even more so during times of uncertainty. Regardless of your school’s current enrollment picture, a segmented, personal, and mission-focused approach to keeping your families will be critical to your school’s enrollment success in 2020–21 and beyond.
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