Enrollment is a Journey — Not a Decision

5 min read
Feb 7, 2023 8:00:00 AM

Enrollment is a journey. Not a decision.

Families in your area have many options other than your school.

Other schools might have longer track records than you. Or they may be perceived as more prestigious. Another school might have a bigger campus or sports facility. And there are traditional public schools, which are free and conveniently located in almost every town. Plus, now virtual schools and homeschooling options are more prevalent than ever.

With so many factors at play, it’s amazing families can make a decision at all.

The only thing certain is that every family’s decision-making process is different and that there’s no singular “sales pitch” or story that will convince everybody.

In fact, I would argue that looking at enrollment as a single decision is a mistake in the first place.

After all, a family’s decision to enroll isn’t made one evening at the dining room table in front of a stack of acceptance letters or pieces of marketing material. Their decision is the result of a months-long process that involves research, tours, applications, and a lot of soul searching.

A much more useful way to look at enrollment is as a journey that encompasses three distinct phases:

  • First, you must educate a family about your school.
  • After letting families know what makes your school great, you must engage with that family directly to make a personal connection.
  • Only after successfully completing these first two steps can you ultimately convince that family to enroll.

By breaking down the process into these simpler steps, you can get a better sense of the enrollment journey from the point of view of the families you are trying to reach.

Each of these three E’s (educate, engage, enroll) represents a crucial moment where a new family can be gained or lost.

For a school to successfully lead a family to its front door, you need to guide the family along this journey, taking care every step of the way to demonstrate that your school isn’t just great — but it’s the best possible place to educate their child.

smiling happy school admin outside building

Step 1: Educate

I trust you have a handle on the education that goes on inside your classrooms. However, when it comes to enrollment marketing, many schools make the mistake of not considering how they’re educating prospective families about what makes them great.

The most important tool for educating families about your school is your website. Your website is more than just a repository for information. Your website is your digital calling card, and you only have one chance to make your first digital impression.

In addition to using eye-catching graphics and photos, make sure your website describes your school in a way that tells a story.

Stories are the most effective way to communicate, so highlight specific students and specific accomplishments. You want to elicit an emotional response in parents that allows them to picture their child at your school.

However, whatever claims you make about your school, make sure you can back them up with data. If your school is outperforming the competition, don’t be shy. You should be proud of your accomplishments. Tell the world!

Your goal is to wow parents — not by overloading them with information but rather by stressing the one big thing that they will remember.

You should answer this question loudly and clearly: What does your school offer their child that no other school does?

professional woman working on laptop

Step 2: Engage

After you pique a family’s interest during the education phase, your next task is to make a personal connection with that family.

This stage of the journey is all about real-life interactions that create a bond between prospective families and your school community.

School tours are the most common form of engagement.

Families on tours have taken the effort to visit you in real life, and they are interested in more than seeing your library.

These families want to get a sense of what your school is really like:

  • Are the kids happy?
  • Is the office staff polite?
  • Most importantly, is this a place where I see my child thriving?

Again, the goal is to let parents envision their child at your school. Your trophy case and empty gym might be impressive, but parents are more interested in seeing a classroom in action.

You don’t want families to walk away thinking “that school has a strong math program.” You want families to think “Suzy will love Mr. Peterson’s algebra class.”

mother and daughter at school for a tour

However, school tours are only one way to engage. No tour can address the needs and interests of every family, and you’ll invariably spend 80% of your tour responding to questions from 20% of the group.

This is why, in addition to tours, I’m a big fan of shadow days where prospective students not only get to experience the school from a student’s perspective but also get to interact in a more natural way with students and teachers.

As you look for opportunities to engage with prospective families, take note of each family’s particular interests.

For example, if a student is interested in playing a specific sport, a phone call from that coach would really let them know you’re paying attention. Similarly, you can use current families as ambassadors to connect with prospects with whom they have a lot in common.

Whatever you do, remember that the more personalized and direct the contact is, the better.

In the end, families choose schools because of people — not because of buildings.

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Step 3: Enroll

Even after educating and engaging families, it can still be difficult to get them to take that final step and enroll. That’s not surprising: choosing a school is one of the most significant decisions a parent makes.

It’s your job to make that decision as easy as possible.

Do not be afraid of reminding parents of the reasons why they liked your school in the first place. You know how great your school is, so make sure parents know that, too.

This is not just your last chance to enroll them, but it is probably the student’s last chance to get the benefits of your school. Now is not the time to be shy.

Also, this is your chance to leverage the personal connections you have made with prospective families.

If an applicant got along well with another student or teacher on their shadow day, have that student or teacher reach out. Have your family ambassadors offer to answer any questions.

A call or email from someone the prospective family knows and likes is worth much more than a generic letter.

Fortunately, your final message to parents will not be coming out of nowhere. With a well-planned enrollment journey, the final decision to enroll will not be much of a decision at all.

Once you have educated a family about what makes you great and you have engaged with that family to make a personal connection, that family won’t be taking a giant leap into the unknown. They will simply be taking the last small step in a journey that started long ago.

And once they enroll, they’ll be eager to begin a new journey as members of your school community.

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