The way families evaluate and select schools has changed. Gone are the days when nearly every market was flush with more students than seats in independent schools. Failing to provide prospective families with the experiences they expect can mean losing top candidates to competing schools.
As many independent schools are setting increasingly aggressive enrollment goals, the outlook for private school enrollment looks promising — at least for now. In the 2021–2022 school year, median enrollment in independent schools rebounded to the point where they topped pre-pandemic levels.
The CATO Institute released survey results that show private school enrollment is seeing more and more interest from public school families, with gains of up to 53% during the COVID years.
Options for school choice exploded during the pandemic, as many families left public school and sought alternative opportunities in charter, private, and Catholic schools — even learning pods and virtual learning, too. Charter school enrollment grew 7 percent between 2019-2022, while Catholic schools saw a 3.8 percent boost in nationwide enrollment, the largest in three decades.
Outside the U.S. however, it’s a different story. International student enrollments have dropped. More than 60 percent of schools who responded to an April 2022 NAIS pop-up survey indicated that fewer international students enrolled in the 2021–2022 school year compared to 2019–2020.
The number of international students on F-1 visas fell by 41.5% between 2018 and 2021, and the total number of students from China — the top source of international students — was lowered by nearly two-thirds between 2018 and 2021.
The sheer number of available students in the U.S. may be dropping, too. While millennials began to turn 40 in 2021, nearly 25 percent of older millennials said they have delayed or dismissed the idea of starting a family because of the pandemic, according to a recent poll. So what does that mean for the future of admissions?
What is the admission funnel and how is it changing?
Traditionally, the admission funnel is a model illustrating the stages candidates move through during their journey from an interested prospect to an enrolled student. It’s often used by admission departments to help codify their internal processes.
The traditional funnel is composed of five stages:
- Inquiry: A student or parent reaches out to the admission department to let them know they may be interested in applying to the school.
- Applicant: The student and their parent(s) submit an application to begin the process.
- Application Complete/File Review: All supporting documents, assessments, and visits have been completed. Using information provided during the application process, the school evaluates the file to determine whether or not the candidate is a right fit.
- Accepted: The student is accepted and offered a seat at the school.
- Enrolled: The family chooses to enroll the student at the school.
In many ways, the K-12 admission process mirrors the sales process. In both cases, prospects are seeking a trusted provider to meet their needs with a high-quality product or service. And admission professionals, just like salespeople, assist prospects through the journey to conversion.
But nowadays, that process isn’t as straightforward. Just as the internet has disrupted the way consumers choose products and make purchases, the admission process is changing, too.
Why is the admission process changing?
Traditionally, the admission process followed a linear path. Candidates and their families started the journey by reaching out to schools for information. This meant admission teams were aware of a prospective family’s interest from the very beginning.
But today, prospects can easily find all the information they need online. Online searches, social media engagement, and online review sites allow them to compare several schools and narrow down options without ever speaking to an admission department. Many of these "stealth candidates" make it to the application phase without admission professionals even knowing they exist. In higher education, that number can be as high as 1 in 3 applicants.
That means, theoretically, a significant portion of prospective students could evaluate and rule out your school before you ever have an opportunity to engage in a conversation.
Once prospects do start a conversation with a school, families expect a streamlined and personalized experience. While schools still lean heavily on a process built on in-person touchpoints and face-to-face interactions, busy parents seek convenience. They want easily accessible information and messaging tailored to their child’s unique interests and needs. Schools must blend their own interests to remain high-touch with families’ needs and expectations.
In other words, technology has shaken up the admission process, but it can also help you solve these challenges.
How to streamline the admission process
For school admissions and enrollment offices with busy schedules, creating an efficient, scalable, and measurable process is essential.
Fewer and fewer schools are relying on paper applications, manual document collection, and tracking everything with spreadsheets. It simply isn’t scalable with the added demands on today’s enrollment professional’s plate. This dated approach runs the risk of human error, inefficiency, and a lack of transparency in the most critical revenue stream for any school. From the potential for critical documents being replaced to dependency on limited and specific personnel to complete functions like scheduling, tracking, reporting, engaging, and ultimately winning enrollments — these manual processes are high-risk for the long-term sustainability of a school. While they're important, they risk losing a candidate's interest.
Today, the partnership between a school's website and its EMS software opens a world of possibilities for admission offices and for families.
Powerful admission and enrollment software helps admission teams to:
- Track all communications with each candidate, so you always know who contacted a candidate last.
- Create dynamic online checklists and customized forms to improve and personalize the application experience.
- Develop unique workflows for internal processes to save time and ensure candidates never fall through the cracks.
- Create calendars where parents can easily book visits, sign up for events, or schedule interviews at their convenience.
- Automate personalized communications in the form of emails, text messages, and letters to deliver the high-touch personal experience parents expect.
- Produce, sort, filter, search, track, and visualize data relevant to managing the pool of prospective candidates alongside the overall enrollment health of the school.
How to grow your K-12 admission funnel in 2023 and beyond
When schools are challenged to meet enrollment goals, many leaders jump to the same conclusion: “we need to generate more leads.” Essentially, they believe casting a wider net will result in success.
But, often, that assumption is rooted in the faulty belief that more leads mean more conversions. On the contrary, the primary reason many institutions struggle to meet their goals has little to do with the number of top-of-the-funnel (TOFU) leads. Instead, it has everything to do with their relationship-building strategies all along the funnel journey.
As the market grows more competitive, fostering genuine connections is essential to outpacing other schools (one way to help foster authentic relationships is to make sure your school has a strong student ambassador program).
Previously, we mentioned it’s possible for interested prospects to consider and rule out your school without you even knowing they exist. But, what if you could connect with them sooner and keep them engaged longer? What if you could tailor communication to the exact needs of each student and his or her family? Figuring out how to communicate with each family on a personal level is a key part of moving students through the funnel.
With admission and enrollment management software, you can develop highly personalized campaigns that captivate prospects and nurture them through the process. Develop stronger relationships earlier in the process, and maintain them throughout the candidate’s journey.
The way prospective students and their families engage with schools is evolving and, as tech-savvy millennials make up an increasingly larger portion of the parent audience, modernizing your processes will become even more critical.
Revisiting and modernizing the admission process at your independent school can make all the difference. By understanding the admission funnel, current candidate behaviors, and how admissions software can help you overcome the challenges you face, you’ll be well-prepared to stay ahead in this competitive educational marketplace.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
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.
Before joining the team at Finalsite, Kate worked with schools across the country in her position at The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) creating and promoting tools to assist schools in their admission and enrollment efforts. Prior to her role at EMA, Kate served as the Director of Admission & Financial Aid at Berwick Academy (ME) and has held positions in admission, financial aid, and summer programs at Leelanau School (MI), Wilbraham & Monson Academy (MA), Phillips Exeter Academy NH), and Saint Anselm College (NH). Kate holds a BA in English language & literature from Southern New Hampshire University and a Certificate in Leadership in Enrollment Management from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. She resides in Portsmouth, NH with her husband and their 3-year-old standard poodle, Maggie.