Just a few months ago, the enrollment picture for many private-independent schools was looking rather bleak.
Amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it meant for financial security and in-person learning, a startling number of families withdrew their children in advance of the 2021-21 school year. Many admission offices also reported that their new student inquiries and funnel activity had all but evaporated.
But as schools – both public and private – gained clarity from their local officials about how to reopen (or not) in the fall safely, many schools have seen a dramatic trend reversal.
I’ve spoken with many school admission and marketing directors who have experienced incredible spikes in their inquiries and application in August and September.
That’s great news, right?
Ehhh, maybe not.
Here’s the potential problem if you enroll families who are fleeing public schools for perceived safety reasons, or because you provide a learning option (in-person or hybrid) that their current school does not.
Will these families, for whom a private-independent school education was not considered before the pandemic – stay with you beyond the 2020-21 school year?
In other words, are the families you are admitting at these late stages of summer truly mission-appropriate families? Are they choosing you because they believe in your mission and values? Or are they basically signing up for a not-so-free trial subscription with every intention to cancel when the pandemic inevitably eases up?
I know what you’re likely thinking.
But once they enroll and experience how incredible our teachers/program/campus/extracurriculars are, they will want to stay for the long term!
Possibly. You may very well keep some of these tire kickers because their child’s experience is so outstanding that they are willing to continue paying for it long-term.
But here’s the other challenge with creating an “artificial bump” in your enrollment. You must be extremely cautious not to inflate your future enrollment goals based on a crisis, in this case, the pandemic.
I’ve seen the pitfalls of the artificial enrollment bump in my consulting work with schools.
A classic example of this is when an area competitor school closes, and its families must find a new school. In this crisis, some families may opt to give public school a try, but many will enroll in other area private schools. This can be an incredible boon for the surviving school or schools that take on these desperate families.
But much like the pandemic, are they choosing the new school because it’s the right fit for their child, or because it’s the best fit right now – a stop-gap selected in a moment of panic?
Time and again, schools who enroll these students plan for – and unwisely spend for – this increase in enrollment, only to find that, during the next few years, these families withdraw at higher attrition rates than usual, and negatively impact your word-of-mouth marketing efforts.
When this happens, it can create a deficit budget and dire financial circumstances.
I understand that for many schools – perhaps even yours – taking a chance on these pandemic-driven families may be critical to your school’s financial sustainability. By no means am I suggesting that you shouldn’t enroll families seeking shelter from this (or another) storm.
My advice is simply to proceed with caution and do not assume that the artificial bump you may get from the pandemic is a sign of future fortunes.
This means not increasing your overall enrollment goal based on pandemic-related admits.
Remember that one year does not make a trend. Careful analysis and projections based on at least three-years of funnel, enrollment, and retention data is the key to your school’s stability – throughout the pandemic and beyond.