Six steps to increase student enrollment
Superintendents have so much on their plate from addressing teacher retention, to learning loss, school improvement plans, and community culture wars. And they also must stave off the nationwide enrollment dropping and stabilize district budgets. Losing funding through lower enrollments can ruin a school district's culture and operations. The consequences of decreasing or unstable enrollment include program sunsetting, school closures, layoffs, and dilapidated facilities.
One effective strategy for fighting off drops in enrollment is through an enrollment marketing plan. Your district can create a plan that leverages the capacity of multiple departments to address the issues and create lasting change. Education Elements brings 12 years of supporting districts in this work and can help you take the right steps to build an effective enrollment marketing plan. An enrollment marketing plan requires a great deal of work, but when done right, you set up a system to continuously operate and expand the efforts of your existing team. Because investing in a marketing plan will pay off with predictable and stable enrollment revenue, we highly recommend working with a partner to facilitate and execute your marketing plan. Working with a vendor allows you to focus on the high-level vision of the project while running your day-to-day functions in a school district.
At Education Elements, we’re uniquely qualified to support enrollment marketing planning because we have educators on our team who served in this function inside school districts. We’ve helped hundreds of districts and school systems through strategy work, including private, charter, and public systems of all shapes and sizes.
Here are several key steps in developing your marketing plans.
Step 1: Plan and Align - Kickoff
Successful projects need shared ownership, structure, and creation. First, the project’s sponsor(s) should assemble a project team of persons knowledgeable and responsible for student enrollment.
The people on this team will vary by district, based on size, but consideration should go to having an array of perspectives from those who touch or directly influence the The project team could include:
- the superintendent or deputy superintendent;
- communication, marketing, or community engagement staff;
- family engagement, parental involvement, or partnership staff;
- innovation or choice programs (ex., CTE, advanced academics.); and
- technology staff (specifically those who work with the student information system).
The initial phase of work should include an inventory of what school categories you are competing in and against. For example:
- Traditional school
- Alternative school
- Open enrollment school
- Speciality or magnet school
- Special program
Schools can occupy more than one category, such as an elementary school that also serves three and four year olds or a high school that includes a speciality program like a health sciences academy.
You should create a project outline for milestones, checkpoints, and the required approvers for completing the project.
Step 2: Plan and Align - Community Engagement
If your doctor diagnoses your strep throat as the flu, you’ll be sick for a few extra days while your body recovers, or you’ll need to return to the doctor. It takes longer to heal if you get the wrong treatment. Misdiagnosing the problems impacting enrollment will hurt a district both financially and reputationally.
Thus, it is essential to understand what your problems are by asking the right questions to guide your research. For example, you may want to ask:
- Why and how do families choose other schools for elementary but come back for secondary school?
- When students leave our district, where do they go?
- When a family leaves another school to enroll with us, what led to their decision?
- What happened to the expected enrollment growth?
Once you ask the questions, you can identify the existing data sources and the groups of people you want to survey and interview.
You will also need to do a competitor’s review of the options your school district competes with. This analysis will look like inventorying all families' choices, including the size, cost (if applicable), program descriptions, and other pertinent data for comparing your school to the competition.
While surveys reach many people quickly, interviews will likely play a valuable role because they allow you to target specific individuals for feedback. For example, you may not get the 20 families who left your district to complete a survey, but you may get 5 minutes to collect data over the phone from five of those families.
Finally, to finish understanding the current state of enrollment marketing, you’ll need to audit your communication and marketing. Collect any materials already used to encourage enrollment, inventory them, and evaluate them for clarity, distribution, inclusivity, and measurability.
Step 3: Foundations - Strategic Direction
After collecting the necessary data, you will make sense of it to guide your strategy.. Depending on your timeline and circumstances, you could involve a new or larger team to support this work beyond the project team. Incorporating a larger visioning team for this step would:
- increase visibility around your efforts to increase enrollment;
- build trust in your community about how important this work is; and
- provide more perspective on the right direction to create the best process and most effective messaging.
During this step, you will be setting the strategic direction of your work, creating the following deliverables:
- SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunities, threats) analysis of the current state of enrollment marketing;
- customer’s journey map, the touchpoints and actions a family must take to enroll in your school;
- customer profiles, detailed descriptions of students and families you are trying to attract;
- value proposition, where you consider the attributes and advantages of your school(s) compared with competitors;
- theory of action and guiding principles of your project;
- prioritized strategies; and
- goal setting with progress monitoring steps.
Your goals might include these metrics:
- Reach - the total amount of viewers of your marketing deliverables (think of the number of people who see an advertisement or attend a community meeting)
- Engagement - the number of people who complete an interest form to learn more about your district or schools
- Enrollment - new students who enroll in your district
- Net Promoter Score (NPS) - a business metric where current students or families rate on a scale of 1-10 the likelihood of them referring your district to a friend or family member.
Please note these data points require a period for benchmarking or utilizing pre-existing data sets before establishing specific targets.
Step 4: Design - Deliverable Creation
With a clear vision and set of goals, the people responsible for creating your marketing materials can get to work. The driver of this phase needs to be a budgeting process.
Thanks to your work in Step 3, you should be able to identify a list of effective “marketing deliverables” such as advertisements, print materials, events, websites, or other collateral materials.
Once you have that list, you can assess your organization's internal capacity or look for a firm to support your work. If you need outside support, be ready to provide clear direction to the designer or firm. The more specifically you define the work, the more affordable the service. Also, be sure you have clear roles and responsibilities for approving materials. Making frequent changes to materials costs extra money, whether you develop externally or internally.
In finalizing your marketing deliverables, consider creating a toolkit for advocates, school leaders, and community influencers. Your best marketing channel will be the people connected to your district.. This toolkit should include social media messaging, graphics, and a commitment calendar for advocates to amplify your messages and inspire families to take a closer look at your schools.
Leveraging your principals will also be critical as they are often the faces in your neighborhoods. Make it easy on principals by training their administrative assistants, giving them clear action steps, and sending them messaging templates.
Marketing materials are essential in the Design Step. But you must also make adjustments and test around the enrollment process to understand the most effective and efficient flow. You should consider these questions:
- Is enrollment done through a digital form?
- Will you have print applications?
- When someone completes a form, what is the timeline for review and notifications?
You can have an award-winning awareness campaign, but you will waste your effort if people can’t easily enroll in your schools because you have a clunky enrollment process.
The final phase of your design work should be to test your messaging with people who fit into your customer profiles. This phase requires knowing actual people who match your customer profiles. Working with a partner to create your marketing collateral frees up your time to build relationships for prototyping ideas, reviewing materials, and brainstorming strategies. This engagement creates more capacity for your organization and distributes ownership beyond the central office.
In testing ideas, ask your test customer questions about how the material connects to their action. For example, ask: “To what extent does this support your decision to enroll in our school?”
Step 5: Launch - Activate
You have marketing materials and systems to create awareness, inform decision-making, and enroll in schools. Now is the time to start activating and distributing your materials.
For this step, you must ensure you have clear responsibilities for who owns what portion of the work. Set a meeting cadence or reporting structure so those responsible share their actions with the team. Establish milestone dates to check progress towards goals and processes for adapting deliverables.
Step 6: Implement, Reflect, and Iterate
Ultimately, you want to make enrollment marketing a part of your everyday operations. While in Step 5, you set up and execute on a campaign map, now you need to think about your entire school year, determine when you need milestone updates, and consider deadlines for adjusting your system.
For example, if you need to do kindergarten enrollment in March every year, what date do you need to adjust the enrollment process to make that deadline? Is March the right time, or would you benefit from doing things sooner?
These project team meetings should include questions about continuous improvement and experimentation to better your system. What is safe enough to get us to our optimal level? How do we extend our enrollment marketing to encapsulate overall customer experience to retain high levels of our existing students?