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Danger Ahead: Early Warning Signs of Attrition for Schools
Connor Gleason

Despite your school’s best efforts, you're bound to lose some families every year and that’s a tough pill to swallow. High attrition rates in schools affect more than just your admission and enrollment goals — they take a toll on your school community.

Attrition in schools is when students leave before completing their education, and students leave for various reasons: academic struggles, financial issues, personal challenges — families move, jobs change…and sometimes, it’s just not a good fit.

Regardless of the reason, it’s essential for schools to monitor attrition rates. Consider this, if annual private school attrition rates hover around the ten percent mark, that means the average-sized school (around 180 students) will lose 16-17 students per year. In terms of revenue of the school, that comes out to $176,000 per year. That’s a lot!

All year long (even during the admission process) it's important for schools to be on the lookout for families leaving and what they can do to proactively address retention efforts. A higher-than-expected attrition rate is an unwelcome surprise, and sometimes you don’t know if a family is returning until the first day of school — when they don’t show up.

Declining academic performance and ongoing behavioral issues are usually red flags, but what if your admissions and marketing office could work together and start to identify the early warning signs of attrition before families headed toward the exits?

Luckily, there are data points and metrics that can warn of slippery roads ahead. Let’s take a look at attrition warning signs, where to find them, and how marketing and admission offices can see the writing on the wall — before it’s too late.

What to look for: Red flags on an application

Your inquiry and application forms are meant to build prospective student lists, but could they be designed to build attrition watch lists?

On your inquiry or application forms, key data fields (long commutes, financial aid dependence, history of transfers) can be reviewed to identify families more at risk for leaving. After some close inspection, retention efforts can be made, attrition lists can be created, and strategies can be put into place to help keep families engaged on campus.

Where to find it: The inquiry and application

Looking at the information collected during the inquiry and application process can actually be quite revealing.

If you’ve collected the following information, your team could ask:

  • How far do they live from campus? Who actually likes a long commute? If a family is driving 45 mins each way, they may be more inclined to find a school closer to home.
  • Have they attended multiple schools before? A history of changing schools frequently could suggest they’d be likely to pack their bags again.
  • Are they entering mid-year? Is there a chance you’ll only have them for the next six months, or maybe there’s a chance they’d leave before advancing to the next division?

Of course, none of these answers by themselves are indications of how long a family could stay with your school community, but the collective response could be a sign that they’d be more inclined to leave mid-year or before graduating.

Trinity Valley inquiry page on a mobile

Collect just enough information on your inquiry forms to start a conversation. Take a look at Trinity Valley School's Request Information form. Not only are they collecting enough information to start building important relationships with inquiring families, but they’re also providing a one-stop-shop for families to RSVP for an open house, meet with current parents, or attend a school coffee, among other options.

By asking about a student’s interests and hobbies, they can start using those data points to build personalized communications and understand the needs of inquiring families.

What to look for: Financial concerns

Schools should be working proactively to remove the stigma of receiving aid, but let’s face it: private and independent schools can be expensive and if a family is struggling financially, they may consider leaving the school to find a more affordable option.

Where to find it: Billing and tuition

Within the billing and tuition module of your enrollment management system, business offices can easily see which families are habitually late with their tuition payments, haven’t set up recurring payments, or are unable to make payments altogether.

With Finalsite Enrollment's billing management capabilities, there’s enough customization to control payment plan options and due dates, and there’s flexibility for families and offices, like the option to automatically split payments by financial responsibility per account. 

Making these data points accessible to your business office not only streamlines tuition collection, but these forms can also indicate if a family could use extra support or perhaps another payment plan.

overdue accounts in schooladmin

What to look for: Lack of engagement

If a family is not actively participating in school activities or social events throughout the school year, it could be a sign that they are not fully engaged with the school community. Without social connections to the school and other families, it’s easier to cut ties with the school system and leave.

Where to find it: Newsletters and email engagement

Low engagement rates for emails, newsletters, and mailing list unsubscribes can indicate indifference or disinterest. If you’re using Finalsite Messages, you can look at the stats for each communication and even look at each user’s engagement level.

Be on the lookout for:

  • Low open rates for vital communications 
  • Low open rates and click-through rates for newsletters and emails
Finalsite Messages screenshot

What to look for: Breakdowns in communication

If a family feels that they’re not receiving adequate communication from your school regarding their child's progress, or information about events, deadlines, and school updates, they may start to feel disconnected from your school community. If your school doesn't take steps to improve communication, the family may consider that a factor when deciding to leave.

Where to find it: Email analytics and suppression lists

Open your email messaging system and look at your recent email sends. Are they getting through to your audience? Sometimes a parent may unsubscribe after a frustrating email, one too many annual fund appeals, or they've just had it with your weekly newsletters.

Be on the lookout for:

  • Mailing list unsubscribes
  • Email bounces
  • Blocked email addresses

It could be death by a thousand cuts, or the straw that broke the camel’s back, but by looking at your email stats, you might be able to identify breakdowns in communication, which can lead to frustration and resentment.

What can private schools do to retain families?

Reducing attrition is a team sport. Creating a culture of retention involves more than just communication strategies, like monitoring academic progress and providing a supportive environment, but there are efforts teams can make to keep the families you’ve worked so hard to enroll, like:

  • Offer financial assistance
  • Develop parent ambassador programs
  • Connect faculty and students
  • New student lunches
  • Parent socials
  • 1:1 meetings
  • Level-up days

Keep Reading: 14 Retention Strategies For Private Schools

A huge part of retention comes down to what and how you communicate regularly with families: Regular communication with families is essential for building strong relationships and addressing any concerns they may have.

Key takeaway

Every department can play a role in reducing attrition, and by looking closer at some of the indications a family might leave earlier than intended, you could save your admissions office — and your school community, a lot of heartbreak.

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Connor Gleason Headshot


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.

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