Mastering the Enrollment and Admission Puzzle
Q and A with Chris Baker, President of the Baker Group
The process and business of independent school enrollment management and admissions has changed dramatically. The stakes are high and the challenges are daunting, as admissions professionals need to know how to handle more and increasingly complex pieces of the puzzle.
ERB spoke with Chris Baker, president of the Baker Group, national expert in enrollment management and admissions, and pre-conference session leader at the upcoming ERB Conference, for tips on how to navigate today’s landscape.
Q: What is the biggest enrollment and admissions challenge facing independent schools today?
A: A limited skill set within schools to handle the enrollment management challenges facing our educational niche. People hired for admission jobs were hired to be tactical and managerial, not analytical and strategic. The challenge is catching up with the professional development needs within independent schools and getting people throughout the school to develop the mindset and the skills they need to handle the ever-intensified marketplace.
School personnel, particularly enrollment and admission staff, need to be more numbers oriented and analytical, with a curiosity to “look behind the curtain” at what their school’s market and numbers are really saying. They need to understand their marketplace and the unique aspects their school’s niche provides. Schools collect data but few know how to use it to inform their program and strategy. Enrollment management requires that chief enrollment officers straddle the internal and external world of their institution more than anyone on campus other than the Head of School. This requires a unique skill set.
Q: What is the most important skill an enrollment management and admission officer needs?
A: In addition to being analytical and strategic, enrollment management and admission officers need to know how to collaborate and facilitate enrollment management functions within their school. One of the puzzle pieces I explore in the workshop is leadership. One needs to embrace one’s own EQ (emotional intelligence) and balance it with one’s IQ. This requires knowing how to read people as well as understanding data that contributes to strategic thinking. One must know how to talk to the Board, Head of School and senior leadership team about strategic enrollment planning, inspire the faculty to be aware of its role in enrollment, while at the same time have credibility with prospective families. You need to understand the internal workings of your school, while looking outside for threats and opportunities. All this requires a varied skill set.
For years, the advancement function of the school has been way ahead of admissions in terms of securing needed resources for staff and budget. Given increased enrollment challenges and the shifting marketplace for independent schools, it is time for schools to consider flipping the current rationale of resource allocation. Directors of admission/chief enrollment officers need to do a better job at conveying what the enrollment function of the school needs and why it is needed.
Q: What are the puzzle pieces?
A: Collaboration and research are at the core of the puzzle, the glue that holds the rest of the pieces together. The other pieces are admission, marketing, retention, technology, and financial aid/pricing. Every school cuts up its puzzle differently, but each of these essential pieces needs to fit together. Every piece is informed by the quality of collaboration and research.
Ask questions about every piece. For retention, if you are losing students, why? What are the factors causing it? Is your marketing addressing the unique needs of your market? Develop an understanding of what your data and market are telling and then share the findings with stakeholders in each of the areas that make up your school’s puzzle.
Q: What are the enrollment and admission trends you’re watching?
A: The independent school market used to be very clear. There were distinct categories of public, private and parochial schools. Now there’s a fourth category: a la carte offerings from online options, homeschooling, for-profit charters, etc. Independent schools still are too focused on the thinking that their biggest competition is other independent schools. The market now offers much more daunting competitors, those with lower prices and value. We are pricing ourselves out of the market, especially in lower grades. There are now so many more less expensive, quality options available to families.
We are not used to bragging about our schools and the value we provide. And since we haven’t been clear about our message, we now have competitors using our messaging and not delivering the product we do. Independent schools are not good at being clear about outcomes, whether that’s the parenting partnerships we form so naturally or the fact our price includes the convenience of having everything for your child under one roof. While everyone talks in general terms about the “student-faculty ratio” it means little to parents today without more information.
Schools need to be better at storytelling and providing stories about the ways in which faculty members get to know students and the parenting partnerships that are formed as a result. People need to be clear [in marketing] these messages to parents and in marketing to grandparents as well, especially as Millennials become parents and consider sending their children to independent schools.
This highly-interactive, personalized workshop – part of the 2017 ERB Conference in Boston, October 18-20 is perfect for senior- and junior-level enrollment management and admissions professionals, heads of school and marketing/communications staff. The customized, interactive pre-conference session begins with a leadership personality assessment and exercise to examine how the puzzle pieces fit at your individual school. Participants will take Chris’ Enrollment Management Grade Report, a tool useful to determine your program’s strengths and challenges.
You will create your own puzzle, share it in small groups for peer-based feedback, and learn best practices from Chris. And you will think more creatively, more energetically, and more intentionally about your leadership role and your school’s enrollment management puzzle.
- Join hundreds of independent school colleagues from around the nation for ERB’s 90th Annual Conference in Boston on October 18-20, 2017.
- Learn from peer successes and challenges at 40 main conference sessions on admission, leadership and learning, ERB programs, and much more.
- Dive deep into pre-conference sessions on admission, data and leadership and learning.
- Network with other independent school administrators and teachers and be inspired by world-class keynote speakers.
Since 1999, Chris Baker has been at the forefront of elevating the admission profession and advancing enrollment management practices in all types of independent schools. She founded the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals, directs the New England Boarding Schools Collaborative, and edited The Enrollment Management Handbook, an NAIS-sponsored guide for trustees, heads of school and admission officers The 2011 SSATB Bretnall Award winner, Chris has worked with more than 800 independent schools, created the Chatham Experience and the Crow’s New Institute, and has served as Director of Admission at Milton Academy and in college admission offices at Boston College and Babson College.