Enrollment Decision-Making Amid COVID-19: 4 Effects to Manage

For better or worse, I tend to oversimplify complicated things. In the complex quagmire of the COVID-19 crisis, school leaders are understandably vexed and confounded by the unpredictable nature of the health crisis itself and how it will impact the enrollment projection for this year, next year, and beyond. While it’s difficult to predict exactly what will transpire, it might be useful to oversimplify a handful of conditions that might keep a family from choosing to enroll or reenroll next year.
For more than two decades, I’ve been working with NAIS member schools on affordability and socioeconomic diversity matters, and I’ve concluded that parents’ decisions to enroll or reenroll centers on two key concepts: the strength of their willingness to send their child to a particular school versus an alternative and the confidence in their ability to make that choice a reality. Critical to enrollment success is a school’s skillfulness in convincing families to be willing and showing them that they are able. If they are willing and able, simply put, that means they’ve been convinced of the value. How might we consider the factors of the COVID-19 crisis in the context of its impact on the willingness and/or ability of families to choose your school?

Four Effects of the Crisis

Controlling for health and satisfaction effects will have positive outcomes on parents’ willingness to choose your school over alternatives. These two categories address the question of “Do I want to send my child back to that school?” The health effects (such as whether a family member contracted serious illness or virus-related troubles) on application and enrollment behavior might be one thing to anticipate and address. Meanwhile, the satisfaction effect of how parents and students feel their school managed the shift to online learning will be critical as well.
Controlling for economic and regulatory effects will likely have positive outcomes on parents’ ability to pick a school over alternatives. These two categories address the question of “How can I actually make enrollment possible?” The overall economic effects, including job losses, business and school closures, income drops, stock market hits, and so on, will be vitally important to address adequately, even among satisfied parents without concerns about health factors. 

These kinds of concerns will play into application, withdrawal, and reenrollment decisions in the short- (now through summer) and mid-term (next 12–16 months), and as the crisis and distancing requirements continue on or come and go.
Health Effects
The concerns families may express around health effects are real and already at play in college decision-making. In a March 2020 Quatromoney and TuitionFit survey on how the COVID-19 outbreak could affect college enrollment patterns for high school seniors, 21.9% of respondents said they “are afraid of getting the coronavirus at college.”
School leaders cannot control or predict how deep or serious the ultimate public health threat will be, but you should be able to assure families of your school’s efforts to keep your community as safe as possible when the campus reopens. They should be convinced that your school can protect the health and safety of their children, as well as that of your entire community of faculty, staff, and parents. How will you clean and disinfect facilities and equipment on a regular basis? How will you handle cases of community members who test positive for the virus? Under what health-prompted conditions will you shut down the campus? Being clear about how your school is handling of the health effects needs to leave no doubt that you can—and will—protect the children.
Satisfaction Effects
The satisfaction effects are the most variable as they can be driven by parents’ perceptions of how well your school has responded to the COVID-19 situation in several areas, including communications, caring for community, implementing remote learning, and more. Though complex, these effects are the things schools are most able to directly control and to which schools should already be built to manage.
Parent satisfaction with delivery of instruction might be the most palpable of the satisfaction effects to manage; schools must preempt the first thought a parent might have about pulling their child from the school because the remote learning experience was not meeting expectations or needs. This anecdote from Claire Goldsmith, executive director of the Malone Schools Online Network, illustrates the satisfaction effects: “A family in the Bay Area strongly considering public school is accepting an offer of admission at an independent school after watching how that independent school was able to respond to the crisis and offer continuity of learning.”
When parents express concerns such as “I want a tuition refund because this isn’t what I signed up for” or “I’m not sure about signing the contract because you might still be in remote learning mode in the fall,” they are expressing anxiety about what to expect based on the job they hired your school to do. Perceptions of satisfaction with remote learning can be highly variable, even within the same school, depending to a significant degree on which job-to-be-done context the parent is experiencing. As noted in the recent NAIS research advisory, “Managing Enrollment During the Coronavirus Crisis: A Jobs-to-Be-Done Perspective,” an understanding of these contexts “can help shed light on how to reassure current parents and attract new ones even during the pandemic.”
Economic Effects
Schools cannot control the economic effects of the crisis or accurately predict how they will impact each family individually. To start the conversation, study data from previous recessions to determine the minimum level of increased demand your school might face from families for temporary or long-term financial support. Does your parent community have a lot of people who are small-business owners or employed in industries that might be most impacted? Or are a lot of parents in occupations more suited to working from home or in industries that will likely be less impacted by the economic collapse? How might you engage donors to help the school mitigate the economic effects on families’ ability to remain a part of your community? 
School leaders should have talking points and school policies at the ready for counseling families on what to do if they face job loss, business closure, or other challenge that will impact their financial situation and ability to manage school costs. Work to increase the financial aid budget and create an emergency fund for COVID-impacted families. An NAIS Snapshot Survey found that 57% of respondents established emergency support funds and that 42% of those schools funded them through specific fundraising efforts, while another 37% increased their general financial aid budgets. Steps like these will bolster families’ faith that if their finances take a turn the school has options to support them for as long as their situation lasts, whether a month or a year—or more.
Regulatory Effects
School leaders also cannot control regulatory effects; they must abide by federal, state, or local regulations on physical distancing, stay-at-home orders, and travel bans. They can be proactive in thinking about the ways they might still be able to serve families prohibited from getting to campus.
Anticipate the possibility that even when school grounds reopen, a resurgence of the virus (or a different one) could force closure again, at any time, especially during the winter. How quickly can you decide and move to remote learning 2.0 when a new stay-at-home order is issued? For boarding schools, assure worried parents that you have a plan for what you’ll do if children aren’t able to return home during shutdowns. Making plans for the regulatory effects should encourage families that you can adjust to accommodate mobility restrictions quickly and effectively to continue to deliver what they’re seeking.

The Four Effects Grid

While it’s hard to tell how the balance of all this will play out, doing pulse checks with families––through surveys, conversations with teachers or counselors, virtual meetups between division heads and parents––can help build an understanding of how this is playing out in real time. The Four Effects Grid can help school leaders find where parents at your school fall and where you might need to put resources and efforts.


The green zone of comfort and confidence is where you want to be; the more you can build responsive and flexible solutions, and the better you communicate them, the better your chances of stabilizing your enrollment. It may not be easy to deliver on all the promises the green zone offers, but it is the guiding star that you want all your school’s actions to move toward.
The two yellow zones represent areas where you might have to anticipate some realism on the acceptable trade-offs that your school and families might have to make. It will be important to understand if the strengths in addressing the willingness factors are enough to counteract lack of families’ confidence in the ability factors or vice versa. It will be important to understand if you have the resources and/or the inclinations to better attend to willingness or ability factors. For example, is it easier (or deemed more important) to improve online program delivery than it is to generate extra funding for financial aid? Will improving one set of factors more likely impact the other?
The red zone is a clear no-go. Schools with a high proportion of families strikingly unconvinced that the school can effectively manage none of the four effects don’t stand a chance, unless the family truly has no other option.
Having a sense of where parents fall on this grid at your school can help you direct your efforts to counteract the four effects that could prevent enrollment. Knowing where you need to most boost families’ confidence in your responses, actions, and plans can help stabilize your enrollment through this tough time. Use NAIS’s COVID-19 Parent Survey to help gauge where your parent community stands. If you are still awaiting some admitted prospects to send deposits and contracts, do a quick pulse survey to get a sense of their mindsets in each of these areas. Are their concerns about signing the contract because of their anxieties around health, program effectiveness, economics, or mobility restrictions? Be prepared to boost their confidence on how you would handle concerns or questions about each of those major obstacles. Use the NAIS Scenario Planning resources to envision and plan for various possible ways that the health, economic, and regulatory effects might play out in your market.
Some of these effects can be better managed than others. But taking time to think through the strategies in place and the talking points to use with families feeling any, or all, of these concerns will likely help stem the tide.
Mark J. Mitchell

Mark J. Mitchell is vice president at NAIS.