Report from the Admission Office
A few years into the Great Recession I wrote a piece for Independent School magazine that identified one of the paradoxical gifts of that troubling time, that the abrupt economic downturn caused many families to evaluate the degree to which their spending and investments matched their values. Item number one in that existential audit was their children's educations. Whether they had experienced a loss of income, or were watching their 529s tank, or were happily treading water in one of the Great Recession's eddies (e.g. medicine, tech, higher ed), the ultimate effect was a kind of collective sobering up. As a result, a strong thread of stone cold serious inquiries in the late fall and early winter of 2009-10 broke the eerie silence that had prevailed during traditional "admission season." In my conversations with enrollment directors around the country last week, I heard them reflect on this effect returning as a result of the pandemic and on the plans they're making for enrolling their schools for the 2021 - 2022 school year. Here are the common threads from those conversations:
Sliding and Rolling
Schools large and small, highly selective and struggling, elementary and secondary reported that the admissions calendar has extended and all were anticipating elements of a rolling admission dynamic. Of course, many schools live this dynamic every year, but even highly selective schools that typically wrap up their admission process on crisp deadlines related that prospective families just seem stuck now. The completion of the presidential election has loosened one emotional obstacle, but the pervasive fear inherent in the pandemic, and the way it has disrupted virtually all of our routines has kept families trapped in day-long cycles, unable to focus on horizons even a week in the distance much less fall of 2021. Some schools anticipated this effect and canceled their typical fall admission events or re-cast them as soft sell activities like community wide parent education events and broad sharing of their pandemic models and early success of the same. Those that went forward with their traditional calendar of fall admission events encountered choruses of crickets. Enrollment directors report that inquiries are picking up, however. Many have re-scheduled their direct marketing admission events for January (even as they're pushing forward re-enrollment for existing families) but also recognize that a resurgence of the virus and a return to virtual schooling as a product of the imminent holidays could change all of it.
As I mentioned earlier, enrollment directors are hearing echoes of the Great Recession's "altar call" effect, with families taking stock of their values and critical life decisions. In fact, some reported that the call could be more potent this time around, because it has been amplified by enforced togetherness at home. For better and worse, parents are seeing their children's schooling and learning habits firsthand for the first time. One enrollment director related one such parent's remarks: "I asked him, is that how you always study? I feel guilty. I should have known about this a long time ago." The parents who are pondering these questions are very different from the flimsy, "are you open?" inquiries from the late summer and still trickling through admission offices for current-year spots. These are the parents who see their children emerging into a very uncertain future and are ready to invest in the kind of schooling that will prepare them.
Last, many enrollment directors are thinking about leveraging the enthusiasm of new parents for retention efforts and for marketing to prospective families, particularly the sub-set of new parents with long histories at strong, well-resourced public schools, families who lived just down the street but had never considered inquiring until the pandemic disrupted everything. It's a segment of the market that independent schools traditionally struggle to reach. Enrollment directors are thinking carefully about how they can amplify these voices to retain other "safe harboring" families and to maintain access to these markets once all schools have returned to in person schooling.