Strategic Admission: Considering Subtractive Changes on the Path to Innovation

Visiting one of our pre-K classrooms in the fall of 2021, I noticed a few of the 4-year-olds playing with blocks. At The Colorado Springs School (CO), hands-on authentic learning starts at an early age when students learn through play during their station time. In this instance, two students were stacking blocks when another student came in and looked as though they were going to place a block across the two towers. This is great! They are going to build a bridge and understand how two things can be structurally connected, I thought. However, the towers weren’t equal; one was taller, making it impossible for the third student to complete the bridge. I thought that one of the students might add a block to the shorter tower to allow for the bridge to be completed. But instead, one student removed a block from the taller side, accomplishing the same goal, allowing them to span the gap with a new block.
Subtracting a block instead of adding one seems like a small difference. But this notion got me thinking: As faculty and staff in independent schools, when we come up with ideas, why are we always adding? Educators often spread themselves thin because they are involved in so many aspects of the school. It is always another brainstorm, another touchpoint, another event, another committee, another meeting. In admission, we recruit students while having our hands in retention and possibly financial aid; take part in academic or other committees; field questions from current families; host a variety of events and attend others put on by outside organizations; travel to other schools; and support other work as needed.
There must be a tipping point when adding is actually detrimental and subtraction becomes more impactful. This moment when I saw the students take away a block changed my mindset in how I might lead our school’s admission office. As we continue to come up with more ideas, is it sustainable? When a parent, the head of school, or a trustee shares an idea with us, how do we say “no” and have the courage to do so? I set out on a journey to evaluate our admission office and do more by doing less.

Mapping the Work in Admission

At the time I began to think about this concept of subtraction, I’d been at The Colorado Springs School for less than a year. Admittedly, subtracting requires more mental work. It involves more steps, and there is less to show for it. Potentially, the easiest time to do this is when a new director comes into the role. A new viewpoint is often welcome and is effective when an institution or department is not operating optimally. In this context, the head of school and the board also had a thematic goal: to grow enrollment. With their support, I began to examine admission processes and roles to see what supported this goal.
I enjoy designing and developing processes as well as evaluating them for costs and efficiency, so that’s where I began. I mapped out every aspect in any process in the office of admission, including those for prospect communication, inquiries, applications, tours, Shadow Day, financial aid, retention, withdrawal, incoming students, returning students, and many more. We learned to look at things objectively, through a lens that supported our enrollment goal. We interviewed lots of stakeholders and sifted through data when it existed. We evaluated the pros and cons of taking away pieces of the puzzle. We began to question the work that didn’t map back to our goal.
During this process, we received some pushback from faculty, long-tenured staff, and some current parents, but shockingly, we also received praise from similar constituents for our suggestion to subtract work. A few of the items we removed resulted in several individuals in our community exclaiming, “Oh, thank goodness we are not doing that anymore!” For example, each year the sponsorship of a float in the city’s holiday light parade came through the admission office. This involved renting a large truck, buying the lights, and asking staff to decorate the float. It was expensive and a heavy lift for the office. There wasn’t any data that tracked back to more inquiries, applicants, or enrolled students, so therefore, it was time to bow out of this event, which coincided with a critical time in the recruitment cycle.
This exercise made things clearer for our team and others in the school, and it allowed us to see if aspects of our work were really supporting our goals. Why did certain steps or events exist? Were they necessary? What would happen if they disappeared?

Deciding to Let Go 

Though this process and the idea of subtracting was gaining traction within the community, we didn’t immediately make any changes. It wasn’t realistic and we didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and we wanted to be sensitive to tenured members of the community. As we planned for the ending of programs and events, processes and ways of doing, one important consideration was related to things we referred to as “the sacred cows,” the things we held on to despite criticism or things we held on to despite our own critiques and desire to eliminate. For example, prospective parents historically have had to complete a questionnaire about why they want their child to attend the school and why they feel the child would be successful here. The admission team considered doing away with it, as it was a hinderance to completing the application process. In addition, we were in constant contact with the families, so we already knew the answers before the parents typed them out. Our faculty felt it a critical piece of the process as our school highly values strong partnership with parents; the responses gave faculty insights into those with whom they’d partner. Through our review, we decided to keep it as part of the application process, but some of the questions needed to be updated to more align with where we are as an institution today.
We also found steps in the process that were becoming barriers to inquiry, application, and enrollment. For example, families were required to take in-person or virtual campus tours before applying to the school. But maybe this was a hinderance to the application process and getting in the way of our enrollment goal. Through our review, we decided a campus tour is still a vital part of our overall strategy, but it didn’t need to be part of the application process.
By eliminating the unnecessary to improve our systems, we’ve been able to take on focused endeavors, such as forming new community relationships, creating new digitally focused marketing campaigns, consistently following up with prospective families, and fully embracing a customer-service mindset, to name a few. We learned what was important to our community, and what would lead us forward as a department and institution. In the past year, our school is closer to its enrollment goal while seemingly doing less. Year-over-year inquiries went up four times, applications and tours were the highest on record, and enrollment is up 16%. While the acceptance rate is down, there are more incoming students from diverse backgrounds, and our net tuition revenue has significantly risen. And no one misses the aspects of our work that were subtracted, which shows they were not as important or connected to the school as once thought.
Going backwards to move forward is a powerful idea.
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Alex Winnicker

Alex Winnicker is director of admission and financial aid at The Colorado Springs School in Colorado Springs, Colorado.