Imagine an independent school world without nearly half of the 1,600 NAIS member schools.
That’s how many schools today face declining enrollment, according to the NAIS Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL). More than a fourth of the affected schools are in a state of critical decline, having endured attrition greater than 10% since 2013. Each year, the percentage of under-enrolled NAIS schools steadily creeps higher, and there is no sign of this trend slowing. To the extent that independent schooling is an industry, ours is an industry in crisis.
The causes of decline are likely as varied as the schools and communities grappling with enrollment shortfalls—economic pressures, couples having fewer children and starting families later in life, competition from charter and for-profit schools, inaccessible tuition levels, and more. Schools often face a combination of these dynamics and lack the resources, time, and wherewithal to fully fathom the root causes of their situation as they scramble to address their plight.
In the context of declining enrollment, schools tend to fall into one of three categories: those alarmed at the first signs of slipping numbers and deliberating about their next steps; those in the throes of decline that are struggling to maintain faculty morale, program stability, and parent confidence while taking action; and those with abundant demand and little concern about making their enrollment goals. But it is critical that all school leaders recognize this enrollment decline problem for what it is: a crisis. Even those—perhaps especially those—in the third category must pay attention and work in the interest of the greater good. What can be done to help the heads leading under-enrolled schools, those who wake up in the morning and go to bed at night imagining ways to keep their communities alive?
Some schools have successfully implemented ways to slow and––against tremendous odds––even reverse their enrollment slide. The tactics are inventive and sometimes unorthodox. But simply listing action steps and strategies is of little value because enrollment interventions need to be carefully planned and tailored to fit a school’s specific culture and circumstances if they are to be effective and sustainable.
Before a struggling school can employ tactics of any sort, however, its community must be positioned to accept the interventions––along with the pain that accompanies change of any kind. For this to occur, teachers, school leaders, trustees, and families must unite behind new ways of thinking about their roles, their goals, and the outcomes they seek from their shared efforts.
Having led my school on a journey to reverse our enrollment decline and restore financial stability, I know how challenging this is. Following the Great Recession, our enrollment plummeted more than 10% in a four-year period as we strained to find ways to stop the decline. We realized that the changes we needed to implement could only be successful with buy-in from the entire school community––faculty, staff, trustees, and families. It became clear that unless we aligned behind a shared set of beliefs and goals, and pitched in together, we would continue to struggle.
Inspired by this experience and invoking the work of Carol Dweck, over the four years we developed 12 “enrollment growth mindsets.” We shaped each mindset by anticipating potential objections or resistance to changes necessary to arrest our decline and begin to turn things around, such as adding a program for learning support or asking teachers to contribute to our internal marketing efforts. The mindsets focus on the idea that we can prevail if we’re willing to unite and commit to a different way of thinking.
Using the mindsets and their accompanying strategies, we’ve managed so far to restore about 75% of our losses, and our work is definitely not finished. But the tactics we’ve employed would not have taken hold if our community hadn’t embraced the respective mindsets that provided context, relevance, and urgency to the action steps we took.
Enrollment Growth Mindsets
1. We are all admission directors.
And marketing directors. And communication directors. The point is, the critical work of attracting new families to our school is not solely the responsibility of the school’s advancement team. Every single school employee has a role in reversing enrollment decline, and each of us needs to actively support the school’s admission and marketing plans. Teachers, in particular, play a pivotal role.
What teachers say about the school—whether when chatting with current parents in passing or prospective families during an open house event—carries real weight. Their opinions, favorable or not, headline first impressions, reverberate across the blacktop, and dominate parent coffee talk.
Teachers, however, don’t necessarily appreciate this reality and benefit from reminders about how much their opinions matter to parents. After all, they enter the profession because they’re devoted to young people and want to help make the world a better place, not to sell the school. So it’s important to make them aware how instrumental they are to school promotional efforts.
In the context of a sustained significant drop in enrollment, until an entire faculty embraces its powerful, primary role in reversing the decline by actively demonstrating its talent and value to families, a school will struggle to pull out of its spiral.
2. Whatever you say you are, be it.
Understanding your school’s value proposition––what you offer that’s truly unique and sets you apart from your competitors––is crucial to developing effective internal and external marketing messages and strengthening parent perceptions about the value you provide to their children.
Do you know what makes your school extraordinary? Can you state your value proposition succinctly, enthusiastically, and clearly? Does your staff understand it as well, and can they articulate it? Are you effectively communicating these strengths to current and prospective parents? Do parents consistently point to the same unique and special aspects of your school?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you have work to do. As veterans of the enrollment battle know, parents will pay a school’s tuition if they believe the value their children receive outweighs the cost. If parents can’t define your value-add, or if in their minds it doesn’t transcend what you’re charging them, your school is in jeopardy.
3. Good enough is no longer good enough.
Beyond your admissions and marketing efforts, children’s day-to-day experience in your classrooms (and the reputation that radiates outward by word-of-mouth and social media) is still the single most important variable in determining a school’s future. If students are challenged, stimulated, and cared for every day, this is the absolute best internal and external marketing––and retention effort, parent relations, and donor cultivation––you can achieve.
To deliver on this—and to eliminate the excuses parents may find to reject a school––you need a world-class staff. Leaders of schools coping with enrollment decline must take a hard look at personnel. If you have veterans on staff who are beloved but not very capable, or you have capable teachers whose contagious negative attitude is toxic to colleagues, then it’s time for some hard conversations. The impact of such faculty and staff can undermine the all-hands-on-deck momentum you need to survive.
4. Keep the main thing the main thing.
Continually asking current families for financial support or levying nickel-and-dime charges like yearbook and desk supplies can exaggerate the perception of the school’s cost. A vast body of experience in our schools supports the view that every time we ask parents for money, it compounds their perception that a private education is too costly.
If your school is in decline and you haven’t already done away with Box Tops for Education, magazine fundraisers, Amazon Smile, and the like––all worthy programs in and of themselves––think about doing so. Considering the relatively insignificant revenue these sorts of initiatives deliver (when compared to losing even one full-pay tuition family), it’s wise to scrutinize all the trivial demands of parents, which, in aggregate, may be doing more harm than good.
5. Everybody does more.
When enrollment shrinks, many schools will be forced to reduce staffing given the proportion of our budgets devoted to personnel costs. For this reason, all employees (and parent volunteers and trustees) will need to step up and take on more responsibilities––for a time––to ensure your value proposition isn’t impacted by staffing cuts.
In particular, you’ll do more of everything––organizing more open houses, training and coordinating more volunteers, deploying more parent ambassadors, leading more strategy meetings with the board, asking trustees to host more admission coffees in their homes, devoting more time caring for prospective applicants, doing more follow-up with applicant families, soliciting parents to write more online testimonials, and training teachers to actively support school marketing and outreach. You’ll do it to keep the school you love alive.
6. Take a hard look at yourself.
You need to be willing to conduct a hard, honest review of your offerings to find out why your enrollment is declining and what your constituents and prospects want from a school. You may not like everything you discover, but you need to have the attitude that you can only fix what you know. The more you learn about your market position and what current parents and prospective parents in your broader attendance zone are looking for, the more your decisions and action steps will be informed beyond the judgment of your leadership team and trustees––and your interventions will ultimately be more efficient and effective.
Conducting thorough market research, which involves a deep dive into a region’s shifting demographics, interviews in the community, and an assessment of a school’s marketing effectiveness, is an important starting point. This work will help you determine how well your school is meeting the needs of its constituents, current and prospective, as well as unmet needs among your competitors that might be opportunities for you. It may also help expose misconceptions of your school that impact enrollment and shed light on new target markets and opportunities to add or enhance programming.
7. Embrace the not knowing.
As much as you want to make informed decisions and minimize the risks of your efforts, and no matter how much you gain from market research, there will inevitably be some degree of guesswork, trial and error, ambiguity, and risk as you seek to match action steps with the needs and desires of current and prospective parents. There is no comprehensive manual to guide you when you’re trying to reverse plunging enrollment. You’re in uncharted waters, and you have to be prepared to take actions that may not show results right away (if at all).
Be prepared for extended periods of uncertainty. When you present the results of your interventions, you won’t always be able to explain what’s working and what’s not. And there may be a considerable lag between implementing strategies and seeing results––stabilizing enrollment could take years. Helping trustees in particular understand the ways in which schools don’t operate––or change––like businesses can ease some anxiety.
8. Investments are not costs.
Trustees who work in the private sector recognize that certain expenses involve risk but promise dividends; they’re investments rather than costs. And your board will need to invest to reverse an enrollment decline.
Nowhere is this more critical than in admission; if your admission office can’t do more, the odds of reversing your circumstances steepen. While it is counterintuitive to add staffing when you need to make budget cuts, you may need to increase your admission office capacity to gain control of free-falling enrollment. The admission team needs help to offer more outreach, events, personalized attention, time during tours, and follow-up work.
Today, admission officers in every market face much more selective, informed, and critical parent prospects than ever before. Many independent school parents are driven by value perceptions rather than emotion or loyalty; they do extensive research and create lists of questions for the schools they visit; they expect a personalized touch in every phase of the admission cycle; and when they scout a school in enrollment decline, they often discover they’re in a buyer’s market and have more leverage.
Tours that used to take 30 minutes frequently last 90 or more; prospects demand tuition assistance, exemptions from academic requirements, and special treatment––from contouring instruction to their children’s learning preferences to making changes in the lunch menu. Managing all this takes time, along with dedicated, talented staff.
9. Feed your teachers.
To borrow from the ’90s book of the same title, if you don’t feed your teachers, they eat the students. Obviously, this is hyperbole, but the principle is sound: Teachers who feel seen and appreciated will give more of themselves. Schools run on energy, affection, trust, and hope, and heads need to make sure teachers receive plenty of nourishment, emotional and otherwise, especially during tough times.
School leaders confronting budget shortfalls are wise to do all they can to protect instructional programs, both in terms of maintaining staffing levels and preserving signature learning opportunities. However, if it becomes necessary to cut staffing, heads need to anticipate how downsizing will impact morale and do all they can to buffer faculty wellness with a clear plan of action and regular, direct communication and recognition (personal notes and cards, face-to-face appreciations, happy hours, humor at faculty meetings, treats in mailboxes). Teachers will understand what’s happening and be more receptive to helping only if you explain why you’re changing, what you’re changing to, and how you’ll get there together.
10. Every day is an open house.
Every current or prospective parent who visits your school forms opinions that, in aggregate, will drive their decision to enroll. The book bags piled in the corner of the math classroom, the paint splattered on the floor of the art room, the unsightly clumps of weeds in the lawn outside the front office, the teacher wearing unprofessional clothing––would any of this be tolerated during an open house? Of course not.
Every single day, each classroom and courtyard and office and field and employee needs to be maintained in the most appealing, professional state possible. Maximizing the appeal of your campus and the impressions visitors accrue when they walk through it will complement other efforts to market your school’s value.
11. The leader sets the weather.
In the best of times, the school community looks to its head for guidance, inspiration, and encouragement; during a period of declining enrollment, staff and families become even more dependent on school leaders (including the board) to remain confident and optimistic. Especially in a crisis, the people who rely on you for information will watch and listen even more closely to take their cues and gauge their own next steps. The positions you stake and the tone you set will directly influence community attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes, underscoring the symbolic power of your role.
Your explicit communications, meanwhile, must balance transparency with the community’s need to know. For example, nobody benefits when you expose faculty to a dismal budget forecast from the business office. Share broad strokes about the challenge facing everyone, immediately followed by the action steps you’ve put in motion and any specific expectations for the teachers.
This mindset doesn’t mean you need to start rousing group cheers and singing the fight song at staff meetings if that’s not your way. You don’t need to depart from being the leader you are. But it’s a reminder that, especially in troubling times, you set the tone for your school community. There’s never been a greater need for you to express vital leadership qualities––grit, humor, clarity, resilience, hope––to help inspire these same attributes in the people around you.
12. Great schools are always becoming.
The most basic premise of our fight to check enrollment free fall is that we have to make changes to restore equilibrium. That might involve letting go of beloved employees, course offerings, and traditions, and perhaps adding new and unfamiliar programs or rethinking how you do things. If you don’t change, then what’s to stop your downward trajectory?
Any change invokes some degree of fear, pain, resistance, and grief, especially in schools charged with protecting and preserving society’s ideals and hopes. Try to find an established school that boasts about resisting change. No great institutions are static, and none of them have “arrived”––they are continually adding new programs and services to prepare young people for a changing world.
Help your community appreciate that while it’s OK to feel nostalgic about what the school has been in the past (and reassuring parents and alums that your school’s core values and mission remain steadfast), it’s also healthy and essential to speak confidently about adopting mission-appropriate, necessary enhancements that will position your school for a more prosperous future. Yours is a great school, and great schools are always becoming.
After the Start
These mindsets are just a starting point; they reflect what worked at one school at a point in time to combat attrition. That is, there aren’t 12 mindsets; there are 20, 50, 100 of them––as varied and creative and substantial as the schools that invest in their promise––that can help school leaders reframe tactics and stem enrollment decline. Schools can begin by identifying the mindset shifts they must accomplish first; mindsets are simply a prerequisite to confronting enrollment decline. Ultimately, nothing changes if nothing changes.
Understanding your school’s value proposition and perceptions, where it fits in the market, as well as what parents say they want (and what they actually want) is critical—and no small feat. NAIS has been helping schools engage deeply in this work through its Jobs-To-Be-Done research and Strategy Lab initiatives. Learn more about the power of demand-side strategic thinking in “Innovating From the Other Side” in the Spring 2019 issue of Independent School magazine. And read four case studies about schools’ efforts to increase retention, expand the applicant pool, increase student yield, and grow diversity and inclusion.