Retention is one of the most effective strategies when it comes to private schools meeting their admissions and enrollment goals. It's also one of the most worthwhile uses of your admission office's time and your school's budget.
If you've dabbled in enrollment management, you’ve likely already experienced some of the obvious benefits of retention, like creating a tight-knit community, but the numbers are astounding: In the marketing world, finding a new customer can cost 5X more than retaining an existing customer and the success rate of selling to a current customer is 60-70 percent, while the success rate of selling to a new customer is only 5-20 percent.
Knowing exactly how to retain families to hit an enrollment target can be tricky, particularly when your family's expectations are higher than ever. To help you identify every opportunity to retain every kind of student and parent, we’ve gathered a list of ideas that successful schools use as part of their retention strategy.
1. Parent ambassador programs
Getting parents to join an organized ambassador program is an excellent way to harness their unique selling power. They have the time, drive, and inside perspective to give to your families in moments you might not. Involving parents also gives them a role to play and helps them become an important part of the community. After all, when people feel valued, they stick around.
2. Formalized retention committee
Only 1 in 4 schools has a dedicated retention committee or team (EMA’s State of the Independent School Report). Creating a formalized retention committee can help you gain insight from a cross-functional team of school staff and teachers, build a strategic path to increase retention, and stay accountable to that plan. Think through who you’d like to invite to be part of the committee, establish meeting times, delegate tasks, and give regular updates on progress to stay on track and make sure your efforts are paying off.
3. The "knownness" survey
We first heard about this concept from Jessica Hart and David Darby at EMA’s annual conference. The knownness survey is a way to make sure everyone at your school knows each of the students by name.
After a few weeks of classes, survey your faculty members with a quiz to see if they can identify each student’s name based on a picture that appears on the screen. When students feel seen, they’ll be much more likely to find reasons to stay. The survey can also help you identify quieter students who may be flying under the radar so you can bring them into the fold.
4. Connect faculty and students
Retention efforts are not just your job as an admissions or enrollment professional. To be truly successful, you need everyone at your school to see retention as a school initiative.
One way to establish a strong relationship between your teachers, faculty, and students is to give faculty and staff a list of 2-3 new student profiles and have them connect or reach out before the end of October. You can also create touchpoints throughout the year so they keep up. Having faculty make a special effort to remember students’ names and a few key facts about them can also help them feel at home at your school.
5. Commit to your diversity and inclusion initiatives
Students who attend a school where no one looks like them or understands where they’re coming from can be a huge point of tension for families. The best way to retain students is to double down on your diversity and inclusion strategies. Make sure you’re hiring, recruiting, enrolling, and promoting diversity at every opportunity.
6. Communicate your efforts
Educate everyone at your school on retention initiatives — from your CFO to your business office and teachers. Add regular posts to a faculty or parent portal and share information about what you're doing to boost your retention rate, strategies you’re adopting, who is involved, and how they can get more involved. When everyone is on board with your plans and knows your goal, they can help you make those goals a reality.
7. Faculty workshops
Retention efforts are not just your job as an admissions or enrollment professional. To be truly successful, you need everyone at your school to see retention as a whole school initiative. Host faculty workshops to educate teachers to recognize signals that a student may be an attrition risk, share opportunities and roles that are available to them, and gather case studies.
Often teachers and faculty are the ones that will overhear a conversation or be involved when students are feeling out of place, or if parents are unhappy with the school. Your faculty are a goldmine of information—don’t let it go to waste.
8. New student lunches
Host lunches in your admissions office and invite new students to hang out informally to extend your connection. Provide time and space where you open up the floor and let them share their experiences entering your school, tips or advice, and even any changes they would make. Showing your desire to learn from them and improve can mean a lot to the students, and help you avoid pitfalls for the next incoming class.
9. Parent socials
Host an event for your new parents. Use it as a time for them to build relationships, say thank you to them, celebrate having them at your school, and provide a time of sharing. You can do this in person or virtually. To add some fun in the case of a virtual event, send them a gift basket ahead of time with snacks and a beverage.
Your goal should be to get to know them, help them get to know others, and build a community that will last. Gathering their overall thoughts, feelings, and reactions to being at your school and hearing likes and dislikes is a great way to help you gauge how families are doing.
10. Level-up days
You can also host, “level-up” days to get your students excited about the next grade, help them meet their new teachers, and build community. Consider doing these a few times a year and make sure your event timings line up with competitive school admission processes so you stay at the forefront of your families’ minds. You can host these in person, or via Zoom.
11. 1:1 meetings
While it may not be feasible to have your Head of School meet with every new and returning family each year, consider planning formal 1:1 meetings occasionally as a part of your process to give parents a continued personal experience like the one they experience during the initial application process. Offer a similar level of one-on-one access to give families continued confidence in the school's overall vision, and help them feel heard and valued. You can also leverage your other administrators as well.
12. State of school event or letter
Share how your school is doing via an event or even a formal letter. Families want to know about your school. They’ve invested time, and money, and trusted you with their child. Unpack where you are, share more about the school's health, and bring them into your exciting news.
Share when enrollments are up, inform them of new programs as they become available, and let them in on new initiatives. They want to know, and the more they know, the more connected they’ll feel to your school.
13. Celebrate birthdays
This is a simple one. Make a point to acknowledge every single student’s birthday throughout the year. Give them a hand-signed card from their teachers and your office.
Recognizing each of your students can be powerful and incredibly meaningful to them. It’s a simple way to demonstrate just how much you care about each one of them.
14. Gather formal feedback
It’s absolutely critical that you incorporate some kind of survey, exit interview, form, or track your NPS score as part of your enrollment process. You want to gather feedback, especially from the families who choose not to attend your school once enrolled, or families that decide to leave after a year or more. Ask them why.
Find out what is causing families to leave- and then dig into those areas if you see a trend. You likely can’t change everything families disliked, but you can find overall patterns for leaving and address those that are most important or influential.
Essentials to Remember When Considering Retention Efforts
- The best way to increase retention at your private school is to attract mission-aligned, best-fit families—the types of families that will want to stay at your school long term
- Your efforts will be most impactful if everyone at your school is on board, from your CFO to your teachers
- To pick the best strategies for your school, discuss progress, and extend your reach, form a retention team or committee
- Remember that retention starts the moment a family enrolls at your school
Implementing a few focused retention strategies at your private school can have a big impact. You’ll see the best results if everyone at your school is onboard, from your CFO to your business office, faculty, and teachers. Focusing on your retention efforts can be a fast track to help you meet your enrollment goals year after year, increase student lifetime value, and create a more tight-knit community at your school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.