Save your budget, create an enrollment marketing plan
Where have the students gone? In February 2023, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) commissioner Mike Morath told the state’s senate to anticipate declining enrollments through 2025, a dramatic change from the previous 10 years with a loss of 50,000 students.
"For the last two decades, student enrollment in public school(s) in Texas has been growing by leaps and bounds. We added probably 70,000 kids a school year for the better part of ten or fifteen years. To put that in perspective, it's sort of like an Austin ISD-sized school system emerges from whole cloth every single year.”
While Texas sticks out because of the historical growth, enrollment declines extend across the nation, with estimates as high as 1.1 million fewer public school students than before the pandemic.
As a former school district administrator who works with education leaders across the state, I know the impact and can offer insight.
A School Marketing Story
When I was a marketing coordinator in a Texas school district facing increased school choice competition, we had a defined and established market for students. We competed with a large charter school and a magnet school district.
Because we wanted to be proactive and have a predictable, sustainable enrollment, we:
- updated school board policy to allow out-of-district transfers,
- targeted groups of students for enrollment,
- launched innovative or specialty school models, and
- created a multifaceted marketing plan to drive student enrollment.
We brought 145 new students into the district due to these strategies.
Fast forward eight years to 2021 to my role as Chief Communications Officer in a Texas school district where we faced a more complex problem similar to many schools nationwide. Our demographics consultant said we expected enrollments for almost 2,000 students who never registered. Demographers make predictions using real estate data, student enrollment data, and school choice information, such as school sizes for local charter and private schools. These shortages have real implications for districts.
Due to other responsibilities which overstretched our resources, including elections, crisis communications, and the continuous news cycle, we needed an opportunity to create a cohesive and strategic plan. Instead, we took isolated and ineffective action, which did not get us the additional students we anticipated.
While it's easy for priorities to fall off the list, enrollment marketing can be a good initiative. Districts must prioritize enrollment strategy because its impact can compound, and the unpredictability can have lasting effects on school communities.
At Education Elements, we’re a company of educators who work with educational institutions to help them address complex challenges. Enrollment marketing is a business function that needs to be adapted to meet the public school system, and we are uniquely qualified to support school districts in their enrollment marketing strategies based on our national footprint.
Enrollment drives funding
School districts can lose millions of dollars due to declining enrollment.
When I pulled enrollment data for Texas school districts and used the basic allotment dollar amount of $6,160 per student, I found districts that lost as much as $93 million due to declining enrollments.*
As school district leaders know, schools can’t operate without funding. Essential operations like paying teachers, fueling buses, and maintaining school buildings require money.
Schools are not in the “money” business, but the work can’t happen without funding.
Improving predictability in your funding improves stability and sustainability
Working in fast-growth districts where we were adding as many as 2,000 new students every year, enrollment marketing felt low or non-existent on the priority list. But in retrospect, we should have focused more on the subject to increase predictability.
Public school districts don’t need growth to function like a business. But when enrollments become unstable, it creates a huge problem.
The budgeting process for a 40,000-student school district starts with staffing costs. Schools provide a human service first and foremost, so salaries and benefits make up 85% of the operating budget. We staffed many positions based on set student-teacher ratios and student enrollment formulas. A district budget based on anticipated enrollment could add 35 new teachers for 1,000 extra students.
The advantages of staffing based on projections include the following:
- recruiting teachers earlier gives a competitive advantage for talent;
- creating more opportunities for essential onboarding activities that lead to better teacher retention;
- starting new teachers sooner means they can join summer professional development and their school communities more quickly; and
- building relationships with families can happen before school starts with prepared teachers.
The disadvantages to staffing on projections are overstaffing or understaffing specific schools. If a district hires teachers for school A, but the enrollment growth happens at school B, it moves teachers just before or after the start of the school year. If only 800 extra students enroll, then the district will run a budget deficit, meaning it will have spent more money than it takes in to cover those costs. Large districts can manage a slight deficit with other savings that typically happen in a year. But annual deficits compound and can create more significant problems.
A solid enrollment marketing plan with focused strategies will improve predictability, directly impacting your school's multiple operational and instructional areas.
For school districts seeking to innovate through a strategic plan, consider how much of that plan relies on predictable enrollment and funding. A financial crisis or budget shortfall can wipe away the work of school communities to ideate and dream about their ideal school system. This scenario could happen if the fast-growing district fails to meet its enrollment predictions, changing the landscape for the district.
Increasing enrollment needs to be cross-functional and a shared responsibility.
It is essential that your enrollment marketing plan is cross-functional and that the accountability structures are clear. In my experience, the accountability for enrollment marketing often fell on my team. But in reality, we could only execute top-of-the-funnel lead generation and needed support from other teams. We were good at creating awareness but needed support to deliver on conversions.
For example, in my role as a district marketing coordinator, our first year actively recruiting students didn’t go well because the accountability landed with one department, but the district dispersed the action items under the goal. A different department owned the application and acceptance process, which wasn’t working well.
I became more active, including visiting the office where families completed their applications. I contacted parents who picked up or downloaded applications but didn’t complete them. After collecting this data, I realized families could not easily access the office accepting applications, hampering our efforts.
A more successful experience was when I supported specialty or magnet school programs that were open enrollment. We partnered with feeder campuses to identify, recruit, and reach families. We created a student profile of a specific student’s attributes that make them a candidate for the school. We gave the student profile to the eighth-grade counselors of feeder schools and asked the counselors to identify 25 students who matched this description. From there, the school’s staff member (usually a principal or an assistant) contacted parents directly, invited them to meetings, and made phone calls.
Working to create a thoughtful marketing plan creates an opportunity to name specific goals, develop systems to measure progress, and brings shared ownership and accountability to the problem. Those elements are critical to a successful strategy in our work with strategic planning.
Competition is not going away
Communities and legislators need to debate the merits of school choice. But, all signs point to school choice growing. Superintendents and district leaders can either invest energy in fighting school choice with policymakers or actively compete for students.
Twenty-two states created or expanded school choice programs in 2021. Eleven states are tackling or have addressed school choice in this past year. In Texas, the Governor has been touring the state, discussing an education savings account program for parents to select private schools for public funding.
With so much tied to enrollment, school district leaders must be proactive because the implications for complacency compound when 5% fewer students rapidly become 25% in a few short years. Then the conversation and choices become reactionary and costly.
The systems tied to enrollment marketing can benefit all families
All school leaders should question systems or initiatives that divert attention from student learning. But enrollment marketing can positively impact all students when done appropriately.
There’s a concept in marketing called inbound marketing, where businesses reach potential customers with valuable and engaging content specific to their interests. Traditionally, enrollment marketing looks more like outbound marketing, where a school or district pushes the same message or messaging to everyone. While it creates general awareness, it doesn’t drive results.
Think of a district using a brochure or flier to tell families about a few broad categories or achievements of the past few years. An outbound marketing campaign would involve this brochure being distributed across the community in various ways, such as to new families moving to the area, in lobbies of public spaces, or as an advertisement in local publications. This effort builds brand awareness but isn’t tailored to particular areas of interest or programs. Nor does this information help a family already in the district to make meaningful connections for their experience.
Inbound marketing strategies could focus on parent and family engagement and customer service efforts to create a better family experience.
For example, a guide created to support families navigating a school's complex educational systems could be excellent marketing material for a prospective student. What if the district produced a fantastic video featuring a new STEM school? That marketing collateral could benefit new and existing students who may need to learn the program exists.
An enrollment marketing plan can bring a strong data culture focused on student and family satisfaction. Satisfied families lead to positive election results, more engagement, volunteer opportunities, and positive student outcomes. An individual contributor or singular department can bring creative ideas to a school district for marketing. But as we started this article with a question, I’ll end it with one:
What value could a personalized approach to school enrollment marketing bring to every school system?
Want to learn more about school enrollment marketing?
Our team is hosting an enrollment marketing on Tuesday, May 9. Click here to sign up.
*Author’s Note: Funding in Texas public schools is more complex than this simple calculation. Here’s the complete basic allotment formula. Schools are funded based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA), but you can’t attend school if you aren’t enrolled. I chose this method because it was the simplest way to quantify the impact. This calculation probably underestimates the financial implications.