Enrollment & International Schools

Admissions Interview

In the past there was a very good chance that when someone decided to build or open a new international school in a particular town or city it faced little or no direct competition or at least the market was so immature that barring big mistakes they were pretty much guaranteed opening with a decent number of students and a solid progression to a break-even number within a relatively short number of years. In business terms we can really think of the experience of most schools as ‘picking the low-hanging fruit.’

However, I believe in most parts of the world now the scenario has moved on and schools need to reconsider their approaches. In most markets of the world the twin effects of market saturation and uncertain economies are combining to mean that suddenly many school owners find themselves scratching their heads, trying to determine why they’re not achieving the student numbers they had intended. This is a critical issue for a school owner. If the break-even number of students per class is 15, then every student above that number represents surplus, with little or no extra marginal cost. Thus, a drop in average number of students per class from 18 to 16 can slash surpluses, especially if it offers no scope to reduce class numbers.

When I was in India, as Director at The Shri Ram Schools we had the luxury of always knowing that demand for seats massively exceeded demand. As a result, processes were geared around selecting those children where there was the best ideological fit between the parents’ desires and the school’s vision. This even remained the case when constructing to increase capacity. So, there was next to nothing spent on marketing and admissions work was handled largely as an administrative task by academic secretaries. The schools even went as far as to place ‘security’ as priority over parent openness so no open days, guided tours or opportunity for parents to see the schools at work. My experience was that parents were so fixed on getting seats in the school that they accepted this, even though they didn’t like it and found it arrogant! Here in Malaysia we’ve seen some of the earliest International Schools who have started to hold open days and to pay more attention to admissions in the last two-three years as they’ve realised they can no longer rely on passive response to demand to retain full enrollment.

When involved in setting up new schools, in India and UAE there was obviously a far greater emphasis on marketing and more importance placed on admissions. However, there were a few things that became clear, even as most new schools were achieving their admissions goals;

a) Marketing methods were often blunt instruments lacking subtly and ‘copycat’ in nature. There was lots of use of billboards, newspaper and magazine advertisements to create brand awareness. Most schools were simply watching what others were doing and copying them. This included bland and vanilla visions, missions etc. paraded as evidence of the type of education a child would get in a particular school. Adverts made endless use of images related to young plants, green shoots etc. etc. all of these things can only create the awareness. Admissions and enrollment has to go way beyond this to get face to face and ultimately to enroll the right children for the school in the required numbers.

b) Enrollment or admissions is so important for the wellbeing of a school that it needs to be given major importance. However, in my experience, I’ve seen worrying numbers of cases where Principals and school team leaders wanted to have little to do with the whole process. Without due leadership from the front it’s liable to get inadequate attention. It’s not just something to simply be left to its own department with minimal attention.
Apart from anything else, the very way the school runs and the way it presents itself in the wider community plays a key part in driving admissions. This requires a continuous two-way flow of information about how the public are perceiving the school.

c) Too often there’s a lack of clarity and certainty about what admissions is really about. Firstly, I’ve been alarmed to see the number of cases where staff directly engaged in admissions had little clarity about the actual number of admissions they needed/ were expected to get in a year. Even when they knew this number they didn’t have clear objectives regarding how many enquiries would be needed to achieve those admission numbers.
School admissions staff and Heads are often uncomfortable with words like sales, yet that’s exactly how the admissions process should be treated, especially as competition increases. In sales there is a sales target. In this case the target number of students required has three elements;
(i) the target total enrollment for the end of the year minus the total enrollment at the start of the year,
(ii) the number of students due to graduate at the end of the year,
(iii) the estimated number of withdrawals/ attrition over the year – an intelligent estimate based upon current trends, the previous year, economic climate and competitive forces combined with the leadership team’s perceptions of current parent relations and satisfaction levels.
(iv) There might then be some modest adjustments to allow for classes that are at full capacity and/ or situations where the creation of a new class could only be justified if a certain number of admissions are secured to join that particular year (with availability of a classroom etc.)

Once a team has this single key number, they can then move on to the next stage of pipeline planning. There should be more than adequate data available to know how many face to face interactions take place to achieve a given number of admissions. This can be stated as a ratio and sets a second target for the number of face to face interactions required.

Then, the next calculation, again drawing on existing data, is how many enquiries are required to achieve that given number of face to face interactions. Let’s show this as a simple example:

School XYZ

June 2019 student numbers                                                  1,600
June 2020 student numbers budget goal                            1,800
Net difference                                                                             200 (i)
Students due to graduate in June 2020                                  130 (ii)
Attrition estimate (consistent 6% for last 2 years
and other factors unlikely to change this)
1,600 x 6%                                                                                    100 (iii)

Total (i) + (ii) + (iii)                                                                     430 admissions target

If we have a conversion ratio of 1: 2.5 for those seen face to face, then this indicates that we need 1,075 meetings for admissions. If our ratio of meetings from enquiries (with a common shared understanding of what constitutes an enquiry) is also 1: 2.5, then this indicates total requirement of enquiries for the year of 2,700.

A good team can map out all three of these numbers over the year, aware of when are busy and quiet times, so that there are targets for all three key numbers for each month. Now, regular review meetings can assess progress against all three key numbers. If, for example, two months in to the year, the enquiry numbers have been on track, but face to face are 20% below expectation and there’s a corresponding shortfall in admissions to date, then intelligent conversations can happen. Does the team need to have a push on enquiry follow-up, arrange a special event to bring in the undecided and hesitant. Has something changed in the market that may require rethinking our numbers? Do we need to accept a lower conversion ratio, so take some actions to increase the number of enquiries (a social networking campaign or some advertising?) Alternatively, can we improve our conversion skills so that we can manage with a smaller number of face to face interactions to still produce the desired number of admissions.

The key is maintaining accurate and timely data and having sensible and realistic conversations around that data. However, if the work above hasn’t been done, then admissions staff and school leaders can only shrug and cross their fingers if asked whether they are going to achieve the goals for which they’re accountable.

However, the duty to achieve these numbers is critical to the wellbeing of a school. This is not simply about meeting obligations to school owners/ promoters, but also to the staff, students and parents. If the admission numbers are not achieved, then inevitably discussions turn to cost savings and/ or fee increases. This can be detrimental to all stakeholders.

d) The achievements of these numbers are so crucial that it is right and reasonable that the people with direct engagement in admissions and student enrolment have a seat at the table when major school leadership decisions are being made. It’s also important that the manpower for admissions is appropriate, trained and motivated. Returning to our example above and the likelihood that the admissions team will need to conduct approx. 1,075 face to face interactions, then in most schools this is likely to require a team of three, keeping in mind that they must also have enough time for follow up, appointment setting and their involvement in other marketing work and event management.
School leadership must avoid temptations to use these staff in other peripheral administrative work in the school, otherwise its easy for the targets to quickly slip out of reach.

In this one article I’ve only really skimmed the surface and there are, undoubtedly many other aspects that can become part of the discussions, training and professional development of admissions personnel. As competition increases significantly schools need to raise their games in this area. Gone are the days when admissions staff could just act like passive application processors. They now need to see themselves as professional sales people with the responsibility to sell the benefits of their school to the right parents for the right children. I haven’t touched upon the aspects of admissions work that actually shapes a school’s ethos. Over-emphasis on the targets at the expense of all else, especially if they are very stretching, can see every attempt made to admit every child, even where either the child or the parents may not be an ideal fit for the school. For example, parents who demand and expect large volumes of homework may be a weak fit for a school with a progressive approach that believes in very minimal amounts of work at home. Schools are not, or shouldn’t try to be, all things to all people – one size fits all. There are also important aspects that relate to how students are assessed for admissions, but that’s for another day, another article.

The skills required are considerable, so I’m not surprised to see the emergence of professional training and  development/ affiliation organisations targeted specifically at admissions professionals. I expect to see more focus in this area as the work of admissions becomes more professionalized. This promises to make it a richer and more rewarding professional field. There are undoubtedly skills and knowledge that are domain specific, so it’s not going to suit anyone and everyone coming from a sales background. Also, it’s work that a teacher needs to think carefully about transitioning in to as there’s a lot to it. And, as stated earlier, it’s a crucial part of the portfolio of school leaders and they need to acknowledge this when allotting their time and energies. They also need to raise their skills in this area – the easy pickings are history.


For more information:
The Enrollment Management Association
Association of Independent School Admission Professionals
(the latter, as far as I’m aware is purely US centric)


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