Here are the 10 secrets of private school recruitment and how to implement those secrets at your public school.
Prior to joining SchoolMint, I ran a boutique enrollment consulting firm for around five years. I mainly worked with private schools, but I also completed a number of engagements with charters and even some with a few, more progressive public schools.
As any consultant will tell you, every client is unique, but all the problems are the same.
These schools might have had different approaches to teaching, attracted a different type of family, or had a unique curriculum, but when I got in and started to analyze their recruitment operations, the challenges and the opportunities were generally the same.
And they were — to a large extent — the same regardless of model: public, charter, or private.
But what was different was the fact that generally the private and charter schools were actively seeking me out and trying to improve. They recognized that enrollment is critical and that to increase their budget (which is driven by enrollment) they needed to change their processes.
My friends on the public school side? Well, let’s just say they were less interested in changing.
But, soon, they may not have a choice.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article talking about the fact public school enrollment has declined by over one million students since the pandemic started.
This represents a financial impact of hundreds of millions of dollars to already cash-strapped public schools.
Many districts around the country are now talking about what painful cuts they need to make to account for this decrease in students. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Enrollment can be improved for any school if they take a thoughtful and deliberate approach.
As I tell my public school colleagues all the time, private schools are not inherently better than traditional public (and charter) schools — they just market themselves a heck of a lot better.
So if you are a traditional public or charter school seeking to increase your enrollment effectiveness, here are my top 10 “secrets” of private school enrollment.
Table of Contents
- Growing Enrollment Must Be a Priority
- Have a Dedicated Person Who is Trained in Enrollment or Marketing
- Every Kid Must Be Recruited
- Understand How Parents Shop and Learn About Schools
- Your Website is Your Most Important Enrollment Resource
- Describe Why They Should Choose Your School
- Let Them Take You for a Test Drive
- Nurture Until They Say Yes
- Make it Easy to Enroll
- Thank Them — and Tell Them They Made the Right Decision
1. Growing Enrollment Must Be a Priority
This seems like a basic recommendation, but it’s one the vast majority of traditional public schools don’t seem to follow.
It’s because a traditional public school district doesn’t think this way.
Most of them think that enrollment is something that happens TO them rather than an activity they can influence.
If you asked most district superintendents what their plan to grow their enrollment is, they would look at you like you had two heads.
But you know who does have a plan to grow their enrollment? The private schools operating in your district. And what students are they targeting to feed their growth? Students in public schools.
This failure to plan and prioritize enrollment until it is too late ultimately ends up with the district closing schools. This is one of the worst things that can happen to a family.
And the frustrating thing, at least to an outside observer? It could have been avoided if the district would have prioritized good enrollment a few years prior.
2. Have a Dedicated Person Who is Trained in Enrollment or Marketing
I recently completed a marketing audit for one of the largest districts in Texas.
Their entire enrollment department consisted of 2.5 people, both of whom were mainly concerned with ensuring the lottery process was running smoothly.
Compare this with a small (500 students) private Catholic high school customer that was also in Texas. They had three people in their admissions department, and their goal was to ensure the highest enrollment possible every year.
To be fair, the public district was probably anticipating their principals would take on some of this task — which, if you know any principals who have free time and are willing to take on one more responsibility, I have some oceanfront property in Kansas I would like to sell you.
But the fact is the only way you’ll grow your enrollment is if you hire people who have the responsibility to grow your enrollment.
What was great about the private school in Texas was that all three of their admissions people either came from college recruitment or marketing. They knew what they were doing.
I am not going to say that a teacher or administrator can’t do a good job in enrollment marketing, but as an enrollment marketer, I will tell you 1,000% that I could never be a good teacher.
Teaching (just like marketing) is a unique skill set. We do ourselves a disservice when we assume “anyone can do that job.”
So how many enrollment people should you have?
That’s a loaded question without an easy answer. But based upon my work with schools and how much more competitive it’s getting, you need to have more than you currently do, and they can’t just be somebody in the district who needs a job.
You need to hire the right person with the right skills.
You would never have the gym teacher teach AP Calculus, so don’t assume that somebody with no skills in enrollment marketing should oversee this critical function for your school or district.
3. Every Kid Must Be Recruited
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a traditional public school person say, “They are stealing our kids,” I would be a very rich man.
I have had my own children in public, private, and charter schools, and I don’t ever recall some nefarious person with a black mask ever taking my child to a new school.
On the contrary, as the parent, I recall doing my research and deciding — based upon the information I was presented with — on the right school for my children.
Let me say it again louder for the people in the back: These students are not yours — Nobody is stealing them! Each parent will decide what school to send their child to.
Blaming another type of school for being a better choice in the eyes of the parent is a bad habit to get into and absolves you of the blame for not actively marketing your school.
I never hear the large state university complaining that private colleges are “stealing their kids.” And I never hear Netflix complaining that Disney+ is stealing their customers. Stop saying this now.
4. Understand How Parents Shop and Learn About Schools
If you are going to out-recruit your private school competitors, you have to understand how your parents are shopping for schools.
Parents may not be “on your time” when it comes to choosing a school, and they may either start the process months early or wait until the last moment.
I get it. It can be hard to be prepared for them 12 months out of the year — not just when you think “recruitment season” should be. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for it.
Here is a simple process to think about how parents shop for schools:
- They have to be aware of your school.
- When investigating your school, they have to believe that you offer a good experience for their child.
- You have to give them the opportunity to learn more about your school.
- You have to make the enrollment process easy.
- You have to give them a reason to stay.
Understanding these steps helps you to isolate what you need to work on to ensure they can select your school.
5. Your Website is Your Most Important Enrollment Resource
Where do people go to seek information in this day and age? It’s not the newspaper. It’s not the phone book (for you millennials, these are old sources of information that people used to use when shopping).
It’s the internet. And more specifically, it’s Google.
Here is the mistake I see a lot of schools make when thinking about their website. Just putting your website online DOES NOT mean I can easily find it when I am searching on Google.
Google is incredibly smart (almost too smart), but it still needs a bit of help in order to understand what information your website contains.
If you are not actively working on improving your website’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO), you are decreasing the ability of people to find you when they are searching.
So many schools will complain to me, “Nick, we are the best-kept secret in town.” That always tells me that their website is not optimized to appear when people are searching. Just because you built it doesn’t mean they will come.
Also, don’t ever assume parents know you and the names of schools. They probably know you exist — you are a public school after all — but don’t assume that this “top of mind” awareness is enough to get them to consider you.
You need to appear in Google searches when they are searching on local terms like “best school near me” or “schools in [city].”
And once they finally make it to your website, do they need to scroll through the lunch menu, the sports scores, and various board reports to finally make it to something that talks about enrollment?
You have so many different ways to communicate with your current parents. Your website is the only one for prospective parents. Its primary purpose is to market your school. Treat it like that.
Here is a fun exercise: go to some private school websites in your area and see how quickly they are pushing you to enroll. Now compare that to your school’s website.
6. Describe Why They Should Choose Your School
One of the important paradigm shifts you need to embrace is an acknowledgment that parents have choices and that they are comparing your school against the other choices they have access to.
Now, not every family carefully weighs and compares different options, but more and more parents are doing this rather than just reflexively going to the “default” choice.
This is a similar challenge that Catholic schools are facing. They can’t just be the default choice for Catholics because fewer modern-day Catholic parents automatically choose the parish school.
You have to give parents a reason to choose your school.
In marketing, we call this a value proposition, but in a simple way, this is just the story of all of the great things about your school.
Is it your curriculum, your award-winning teachers, your athletic accomplishments, or your drama program?
Whatever it is, make sure you’re highlighting what it is and describing it in a way that makes parents want to choose your school. So many traditional public schools never describe the BENEFITS of attending the school.
7. Let Them Take You for a Test Drive
Would you ever buy a car without taking it for a test drive? Of course not.
You want to feel the handling, check the acceleration, and — let’s be honest — see if you look cool in it. (Okay, maybe that last one is just me.) Buying a car is a major decision, and you want to make sure you are making the right choice.
Every parent who chooses a private school expects to be able to tour the school. They want to see the facilities, they want to hear from the principal, and they want to know with a high degree of certainty that their child will be safe and have a good experience at that school.
Most parents who send their children to public school want the same thing.
Sure, you may have some parents who believe that education is a low-involvement decision and don’t feel the need to tour, or they may trust you because you are the public school, but there is a significant number of parents (the more active and involved parents) who are craving this chance to see deeper into the school.
If you are a public school that doesn’t offer tours when people are making an enrollment decision, you are forgoing one of the prime tools that private schools, universities, and charter schools use to recruit more effectively.
You can learn how to give an effective public school tour in my previous article here.
8. Nurture Until They Say Yes
So what do you do if a parent comes in and tours but your registration doesn’t open up for a few months?
If you are in a private school, you nurture them until the moment that they say yes.
You do this with follow-up calls, emails, texts, or other activities. You invite them to learn more about your school. You realize that parents are incredibly busy and may not be prioritizing your deadlines like you are hoping that they do.
You also might have parents who are on the fence who just need a little bit of a push to complete their enrollment and might end up choosing your school.
This nurturing is hard. It is labor intensive, but if done correctly, it sends a powerful message that the family is wanted at the school.
As a district leader, you may be thinking that there is no way you could do this. But you would be surprised at the number of tools out there that allow you to send a follow-up email or a text that can be 100% automated.
The bottom line: you need to follow up with prospects. If you aren’t, your competition will.
9. Make it Easy to Enroll
There was an axiom I learned in business school that has always resonated with me: make it easy for the customer to buy from you.
You see this philosophy when you go on Amazon or shop at Costco, where it is almost too easy. I know I don’t need the 10-pound block of cheese, but they made it so easy. I now have 10 pounds of cheese in my refrigerator.
Many registration processes for traditional public schools are cumbersome and are built around the district’s priorities rather than making it easy for the customer (parents) to do it.
Though many private schools are still working on perfecting this step, they are still heads and shoulders above their public school colleagues.
And I know that there are some things that you can’t change. We need to have all of those forms and we need to account for multiple languages.
However, I would encourage you to take a fresh set of eyes to your enrollment process and see if you can make it a bit more customer friendly.
As somebody who recently had to do both, it should not be harder to register my child at a school than it is to refinance my house.
10. Thank Them — and Tell Them They Made the Right Decision
I know it can be a bit frustrating when I say to thank the parent. After all, you are doing all of the hard work here, but remember: in choosing you, they have said that you are the person and institution they trust with the well-being and education of their child.
That is a pretty awesome responsibility and honor.
I know it’s not much, but simply acknowledging that “we know that there are many options for your child’s education and we appreciate that you chose us” will go a long way.
You also want to ensure that the parent is constantly hearing about all of the great things that your school is doing. Do not rely upon the child to be your messenger.
Your social media account and all of the information you send home should constantly be telling the parent that this is the best school out there and they made the right choice.
Enrollment is not going to get easier. And competition for students will get only more intense.
Until your state changes how it funds students, your budget will be dictated by the number of students you enroll. But by employing some of these tactics, you can start to improve the enrollment at your public school or district.
To schedule a free consultation with one of our enrollment consultants, get in touch here.
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