How to Navigate Enrollment Issues in an Uncertain Year

How to Navigate Enrollment Issues in an Uncertain Year
How to Navigate Enrollment Issues in an Uncertain Year

Enrollment Management

The 2020–21 school year will be a test of the lessons learned this spring. Enrollment management leaders must adapt their strategies to meet families' needs during this pandemic.

Review Your Materials

Contracts and Handbooks

The first thing your school must do is look over your enrollment contract and student/parent handbook. Carefully review all policies tied to tuition and ensure your language matches the programs you’re offering.

That said, if your existing contract does not include force majeure language—or fails to declare distance learning an acceptable substitute for on-campus instruction—do not ask parents to sign a new contract, or to sign a contract addendum, for 2020–21.

Instead, include force majeure and distance learning language into your parent/student handbook. Why? Because asking parents to sign a new contract, or a contract addendum, for the 2020–21 school year would invalidate the existing contract. You would forfeit the right to enforce the collection of tuition provided by the original contract.

Agreements for Other On-Campus Programs

If your school provides daycare, preschool, before- or after-school programs that can’t be offered remotely, consider these policies separately. Language about tuition, payment, and campus closures for these offerings must be separate from your main contract.

Safety Communications

Communicate the school’s safety and compliance procedures for the coming school year. Parents and students should understand and agree to these measures as a condition of enrollment. Full transparency and honest disclosure prevent misunderstanding.


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Act With Empathy

Look at your school’s place in the broader community. Many parents have been laid off or furloughed. Your community may be home to an industry that has been hit especially hard. And remember, the full economic impact of COVID-19 is still unknown.

If you have unresolved issues with families concerning last year’s tuition or demands to negotiate this year, ensure you’re acting with reason and compassion. Use your existing enrollment contract as a guide and keep your school’s mission in mind. Take steps to keep current families committed.

There are several ways to work with families experiencing financial distress or issues with distance learning.

Use emergency financial aid to help families that qualify for aid. Your criteria for qualifying for aid might change. Consider rescheduling deadlines for returning enrollment contracts and making deposits. Arrange to delay payments or divide them into smaller amounts payable over time to relieve pressure.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Don’t accept tuition payments as donations or gifts. A donation to the school must be voluntary. It cannot be coerced nor offered for forgiveness of a contractual obligation.
  • Don’t accidentally eliminate competition. While schools in the same region can opt to cooperate regarding admission timelines and notification dates, avoid interschool cooperation on tuition and refund policies. Antitrust concerns can be raised if private schools in an area even appear to collaborate to remove competition or set pricing.

Adjust Your Processes

New Student Interviews

If you’re conducting virtual admission interviews for new students, ensure they are still effective. Assume these conversations are not confidential. Parents are likely to be present with the prospective student.

It is possible that the interviewee may be coached, or, in rare cases, could be a stand-in for the student who attends your school. Include language in written communication stating that the student's admission is contingent on an eventual in-person visit to the school. You need to have a verification process in place to rule out any misrepresentation resulting from remote evaluations.

Acceptances

Admission committee meetings should still happen virtually. Keep your community informed about alterations to the admission process, traditional late summer events, and any other changes they need to be aware of.

Essential Next Steps

Document what steps your school did during this crisis. Write down how it handled tuition refunds, parents failing to return enrollment contracts, and late withdrawals. A full account of how these issues were addressed at the time will prove valuable in the future as you review what worked and what did not.

Maintain constant communication with families, especially those that are newly enrolled, about the status of the upcoming school year. Above all, the adaptations and special considerations schools make now must not set precedents. Establish the unique nature of the situation so the entire community understands that the flexibility you are allowing in current policies is not the norm.

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