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Determining Optimum School Enrollment Size

By Net Assets posted 11-24-2020 10:27 AM

  

Enrollment & Financial Aid |

Assessing your school's enrollment size can help school leaders and the board understand long-term admissions goals more clearly and adapt to changing circumstances.

Article by Rick Fleck, retired; formerly of Portledge School

The year was 2012. The board’s discussion was focused on the school’s mission. One hour into this crucial discussion, a board member gave an impassioned plea: “We need to be sure we continue to make ourselves available to not only gifted students, but average students as well. My son was a C student but was given the chance to better himself here. He was recently accepted at a top-rated engineering school because of the opportunity this school gave him.” A chorus of support followed. 

Then another board member asked a question that brought the conversation to a standstill: “But what do we do when we have one more enrollment spot available with two applicants: one ‘average’ kid and one all-state athlete with straight A’s?” Would the school really put the straight A student on the wait list and accept the C student because of a goal to accept students with a range of academic abilities?

As appropriate and well intentioned as the trustee’s plea for wider acceptance standards sounded, it presented the board and the school with a dilemma, which led to not only soul-searching moments but a comprehensive examination of who we wanted to be and serve, and how we might utilize our finite resources to best accomplish our goals.

Much has been written about the “right size” of a school’s labor force. A further step to take, with the school’s mission statement in mind, is to consider the “right size” of the school’s enrollment.

Much has been written about the “right size” of a school’s labor force. I applaud those tough choices our independent schools have made. A further step to take, with the school’s mission statement in mind, is to consider the “right size” of the school’s enrollment. The optimum enrollment number, if you will.

Let’s look at some givens and make some preliminary assumptions. Assumption #1: The school has a mission statement that has been, and will continue to be, reviewed for its relevance and appropriateness. Assumption #2: The school has a fixed quantity of usable land which will not change in the near future. Assumption #3: The school has developed a five-year financial plan based on an agreed upon student/faculty ratio.

Mission First

Probably the most important consideration of all, the mission statement, along with a “living” strategic plan document, should provide insight, if not immediate direction, into the following questions: What do we want to accomplish? Who are we trying to be, and what is important to us? Without this thoughtful consideration, schools are too apt to fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people and, in so doing, most of our schools will fail and embrace mediocrity at best.

Campus Considerations

For most schools, the physical footprint is fixed for most its history. There are times when land becomes available and is quickly purchased, or based on economic need, school land can be sold. Times such as this require a revised look at the school’s optimum enrollment. How you use the land and space available to the school should be thoughtfully considered with consideration to your mission statement.

Without an understanding of and agreement on a school’s faculty/student ratio and/or a goal and plan to work toward an agreed upon ratio, enrollment changes can result in resource allocations which are not in the best interests of the school’s stated mission. 

Planning Ahead

Labor is the largest expense in our schools, and faculty salaries are almost assuredly the largest cost center. Without an understanding of and agreement on a school’s faculty/student ratio and/or a goal and plan to work toward an agreed upon ratio, enrollment changes can result in resource allocations which are not in the best interests of the school’s stated mission. That is, the school can employ more teachers than it needs to fulfill its mission.

A five-year financial plan provides a look into the future and the impact of enrollment changes under a stable faculty/student ratio. This ratio also helps when responding to the board when they ask what the school’s contingency plan is to a drop in enrollment.

Demographics of your location are crucial. Understanding the supply of independent school choices and the supply of school age children, along with the income levels of your locality, can indicate demand for your school is. Of course, other factors such as the quality of your local public-school systems, the size and enrollment of alternative independent/charter schools in your area, and your school’s reputation will factor into the current demand level.

Next, explore class sizes within your various divisions as appropriate. Do you have a maximum size for each grade level? In an optimum arrangement, each class would fill to its capacity---maximizing revenue while still providing the best environment possible for each student. This would mean fewer students per class in your early childhood and elementary grades with classes increasing in size in order to provide the best social environment for all.

After “playing around” with the different possibilities, we settled on an agreed upon optimum enrollment number for each grade. This gave us a framework that combined with our financial planning model to give us a total enrollment and, therefore, total gross tuition revenue number for our financial scenario planning.

Stepping back and looking at your admission applicant data will help you not only redefine these numbers, but also give you solid information which you can use to fine tune your marketing plan. Depending on how close you currently are to your optimum enrollment number, you can next decide a realistic goal when you will be able to attain your optimum goal. This may be five years down the road, or three years or it could be next year. Most importantly, all aspects of the marketing side of your school will now be in line with one another. Advertising and communication dollars can be channeled to your weak spots. Your Board will appreciate the transparency and value of what your administration is attempting to do, and will be less likely to throw curve balls at your strategic enrollment plan. You may even get to the point where you develop a wait list. Just make sure you know whether you do really want that solid “C” student.

Rick Fleck retired from his position as chief financial officer at Portledge School in Locust Valley, New York this past summer.
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