Exit Interviews: When Families Decide to Leave
Vol. 12 No. 9
We love to talk about the things we love. It could be family and friends, the latest and greatest TV show or book, or a beloved vacation spot. Most of us tend to leave out the negative things, preferring to dwell on the positive. In general, that’s a great way to live and work. But, as an Admission Director, you know that ignoring the less-than-fantastic elements of your program will (eventually) lead to people departing from your school in droves, no matter how excellent the positive aspects are.
So, be proactive! Before your school sees a massive exodus, find out why your withdrawing families are going elsewhere. This doesn’t have to be an awkward, unplanned conversation—a simple survey process can provide the answers you need and solid information you can act on.
It’s Not Always Cut and Dried
Sometimes, there are hidden reasons why families don’t re-enroll. Finances are often cited as a reason for leaving, and moving poses commuting problems. Still, it’s dangerous to assume that seemingly obvious reasons are the only ones. You’re hardly in a position to change your school’s tuition rates or relocate your campus, but there could be other contributing factors that you may be able to control.
For example, let’s say a family withdraws due to “insufficient finances” and your exit interviewer calls to ask for clarification and if there was anything the school could’ve done to keep them. During the course of your conversation, you discover that that the father has just lost his job.
Did they apply for financial aid? Yes. Did they receive any awards? Yes, but not enough. If this family’s answer seems similar to other families’ responses, you may have a problem with your financial aid formula—perhaps in giving to too many, you don’t give enough to make a real difference. (For more information on financial aid formulas, see The Three Types of Need-Based Financial Aid, available for Gold Consortium members.) This answer warrants a closer look at your formula and how your school is awarding aid to families.
In this case, your school identified a serious problem that would have gone unnoticed without the exit interview—and therein lies the advantage your school will have over others who don't take the time to dig deeper into seemingly simple reasons for departure.
How to Proceed
First of all, you may consider using an unaffiliated “third party” to handle exit interviews for several reasons.
- Families are more likely to be completely candid with a third party than they could be with a school official. Whether this is out of a desire to be “off the record” or simple courtesy, you’re more likely to get honest information if using a third-party interviewer.
- Running the interview through a third party can also allow for the family to feel that their privacy is respected and that their comments will be confidential.
- Third-party interviewers are trained to survey others and get the right information from them. This is their profession—why not use their expertise?
Also, call families rather than sending them paper forms or arranging in-person interviews. The parents has already invested their time and energies elsewhere, so it makes little sense to inconvenience them with clumsy paper surveys they probably won't complete or meetings they probably won't honor. While electronic surveys can be used for convenience and consistency's sake, they can lack the immediacy of a personal phone call.
As always, timing is everything. Contact families in the fall so they don’t feel as if you’re trying to pressure them back into the school and thus are more willing to spend a few minutes answering your questions. Of course, this means you need to get the list of contacts and questions ready now, which brings us to…
Depending on your school’s personality and culture, your interview may be more or less structured than others, but every survey should establish the following:
- why the family decided not to re-enroll;
- who participated in making the decision;
- what strengths and weaknesses the school had while their child was enrolled;
- why the family chose the child’s new school; and
- what sort of school—public, private, charter, religious, college prep, etc.—the child attends now.
If you're not using a third party, craft a script to give to whomever does the interview to make sure there’s some continuity between calls. Store data and reflect on it over the years, enabling you to spot and act on trends before they become problematic.
While it’s always sad to see a family leave your school before their child matriculates, you should still make sure their departure isn’t bitter or toxic. Handled well, exit interviews can be a great opportunity to reconnect and see the private school you’re dedicated to in a new light.
Additional ISM resources:
Private School News Vol. 9 No. 11 Find Out What They Think Before They Leave the School
ISM Monthly Update for Admission Officers Vol. 11 No. 6 Exit Interviews and Attrition Surveys
Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 35 No. 8 Enter, Stay, Leave: A New Insight
I&P Vol. 38 No. 1 Assessing Your School’s Internal Marketing in Light of the Student Experience Study