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Admissions Reboot

By Net Assets posted 11-03-2015 07:11 PM

Admissions Reboot

Enrollment & Financial Aid |

A challenging enrollment environment underscores the call for stepped-up market research and more rigorous collaboration between schools’ business and admissions functions.

Article by Leah Thayer

From the November/December 2015 Net Assets

How did a small private college grow its enrollment and stabilize its finances without sacrificing quality? Its example could be instrumental to many independent schools facing financial and competitive challenges.

In 2006, Dr. Matthew Ward joined California Lutheran University as its dean of undergraduate enrollment. At the time, the then-47-year-old school had just under 3,300 undergraduate and graduate students and was investing heavily in new programs, facilities and recruitment, based in part on the belief that its competition was the enormous public California State University system. Under Ward’s guidance, a deep dive into market research revealed a number of opportunities, including that of enhancing the Cal Lutheran presence in its own backyard of Thousand Oaks, Calif., midway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.”

Ronald Coase, British economist

“Our goal has been to dimensionalize data in ways that inform strategy and enable us to calculate return on investments we make in the areas of recruitment, marketing and financial aid,” explains Ward, now vice president of enrollment management and marketing. Fueled by a strong belief that every school should understand its market position, he undertook a massive data-crunching initiative that explored what the university was known for and what it wanted to be; who the stakeholders were and what they were looking for; and who the competition was and what it stood for.

“As an institution we need to assess our market position, competition, demographics and other important variables that can be measured,” Ward continues. “We then must use the data to seek out the greatest opportunities for action and create realistic enrollment goals for the institution.”

The consensus? “We were not doing enough in local markets,” Ward says. “We saw a lot of opportunities to enroll more students from the surrounding region—academically strong students who would also enhance the diversity of the university.” Stepped-up local marketing was a big part of that outreach, and Ward cites two specific initiatives in particular that have boosted admissions and created a sustainable enrollment strategy, without, as he puts it, “breaking the bank.”

One initiative, called the CLU Guarantee, matches costs at five universities in the Cal State system. Students who have been admitted to any of the five are eligible for a scholarship to the private CLU for the same average cost of the public universities—in 2015–16, $23,525. Another program, called 4 to Finish, guarantees entering freshmen that they will graduate in four years. If not, the school will pay tuition for every additional class needed for graduation. (For more on these programs, visit and

“These two programs enhance our value proposition against schools that are perceived as more affordable, when in fact we are often about the same price,” Ward says. Further, promising on-time graduation “is hard to do in the public sector.”

Since Ward’s arrival at Cal Lutheran, total enrollment has grown to nearly 4,200, and the endowment has doubled. In August, the school welcomed its largest and most diverse freshman class ever, up nearly 10 percent from last year.

The Best and Worst of Times

Enter the independent school business officer. Not only do higher education models like Cal Lutheran have much to teach the K–12 sector, but “business officers are natural partners for enrollment leaders,” says Heather Hoerle, executive director of SSATB, a not-for-profit membership organization for independent school admissions and enrollment professionals. “Synergies need to be explored together, since both have unique perspectives on questions surrounding school sustainability.”

As had been the case at Cal Lutheran, many independent schools have been working harder and spending more on enrollment management, she says. In some cases, admissions departments that were once staffed by one person may now have three or four, with no marked change in enrollment, just to manage greater family expectations and marketing. Schools report a “higher touch” admissions process that is more customized to applicants, let alone to admitted students.

In fact, these are both the best and worst of times for independent schools, Hoerle believes. In a recent presentation before the NBOA Board of Directors (of which she is a member), she referenced a slew of data beginning with positive trends such as significant growth in the number of school-age children, from 53.7 million a few years ago to a projected 61.8 million by 2050, according to the Census Bureau. At the same time, there remains high demand for, and waiting lists at, a relatively small number of schools.

More broadly, however, the traditional market for independent schools is both declining and in greater demand. For instance:

  • Much of the projected Census growth is among Hispanic children, who are far more likely to go to public or parochial schools than to independent schools. The population of non-Hispanic white children will continue the slide that began around 2000, and by 2030 more than half of U.S. children will be members of a racial or ethnic minority.
  • High-income households are concentrated along the coasts, primarily in the Northeast and West.
  • Financial aid budgets are at all-time highs (see related article, page 34), and families of ever-higher incomes are asking for financial assistance or breaks. Hoerle mentions a school where a billionaire parent, on a tour, said, ‘You can do better on price, can’t you?’
  • New and cheaper competition continues to emerge far beyond free public charter schools. Consider academically rigorous, technology-driven online schools and AltSchool, a collaborative of “micro-schools” funded by $100 million in venture capital. “It’s being informed by the best thinkers in neuroscience, Silicon Valley tech leaders and entrepreneurs from today’s most successful brands,” Hoerle says.
  • The independent school customer base is changing. In addition to the demanding, helicoptering, snow-plowing parents that many schools face on a daily basis, Hoerle points to a video about the bifurcation of the market into two camps: “traditionals,” who are status-driven but price-sensitive, and “NEOs” (those from the “New Economic Order”), who want a unique experience for their money. Both are conducting far more research before even considering specific schools, and they are applying pressure from both sides.
  • Finally and notably, “we’ve lost 50,000 kids,” says Hoerle. She’s referring to the decline in enrollment at NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) member schools between the 2007–08 and 2014–2015 school years. That’s 8 percent of the schools’ total student population, and it reflects declines of 15 percent or more at
    14 percent of schools.

“How many independent schools will close in the next five years?” asks Hoerle. As an example of what likely lies ahead, she cites Sweet Briar, a 109-year-old women’s college in Virginia that was slated to close but re-opened with a fraction of its previous enrollment, and only by dint of a massive effort by alumnae and supporters.

“Is Sweet Briar a canary in a coal mine—a great school in a semi-rural setting, not distinctive enough to appeal to the NEOs, and the traditionals all seem to want more money? By not differentiating—by not being willing to say we do really well with specific types of students—we’re getting lost.”

Sharpened Strategies

As an independent school alumnae, parent and trustee alike, Hoerle hopes for a brighter alternative. Drawing in part from the Cal Lutheran example, she identifies several key strategies schools should adopt to sharpen their relevance and become financially sustainable.

Know your audience—students and parents alike—and demonstrate the value and differentiating factors of your school in your marketing. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Respect that the independent school customer base is changing, and that many prospective families see independent schools as a confusing market without a clear value proposition. “Are we seeing more and more NEOs?” Hoerle asks. “If so, we need to sharpen our messages to meet their interests.” Also understand that families no longer consider independent school a “one-and-done” thing; many are open to moving their child to different options including charter schools, personalized learning options, homeschooling and more.

Acknowledge that “admission and strategic enrollment management are different from one another,” she says. “One focuses on bringing in prospective students, the other focuses on building a strategy based on data-driven knowledge of the school, its place in the market, demographics, past patterns, retention” and so on. She proposes “a new breed of admission professional” with as deep an understanding of data as a knack for sales. “Typically the admission director is paid a little less than the athletics director and certainly less than the advancement director, yet admission professionals are responsible for generating 80 to 90 percent of the school’s operating revenue,” Hoerle says. “We’re calling on this role to be elevated within schools.”

42 percent of parents found applying to private schools to be more work than they expected, and 14 percent dropped schools from consideration due to the amount of application time required.

Streamline your admissions process to the extent possible. How many potential candidates do you lose because of a lengthy or confusing application process? Hoerle even calls for “a common application which would allow independent schools to present a united front to families.” In its “The Ride to Independent Schools” report, SSATB noted that 42 percent of parents found applying to private schools to be more work than they expected, and 14 percent dropped schools from consideration due to the amount of application time required.

Build partnerships between the business office, where so much data resides already, and the admissions office. Amass and analyze data to better understand your market locally, regionally as well as nationally. Know who is applying, where they come from, what their grades and test scores are, how they learn about the school.

Know your students and graduates infinitely better. Again referring to a higher-ed example, Hoerle says that Bowdoin “has 50 data points on each student,” and will track these students as they graduate and move on. “In 10 years, they’ll be able to publish a book about Bowdoin graduates.”

Jeff Shields, NBOA’s president and CEO, has long advocated for greater collaboration between the business and admissions functions. Interestingly, he says, during the same NBOA Board meeting in which Hoerle gave her presentation on enrollment trends, “I learned that three very well-regarded schools in separate regions of the country were going into the 2015–16 school year under-enrolled and were already managing a significant budget deficit as a result.”

The challenge isn’t just for business officers to align their budgets with the admissions office’s enrollment projections, however. To Hoerle’s point about “the new breed of admission officer,” Shields too invokes change. “The admissions and enrollment professional must come to the table with data and concrete ideas to assist the senior leadership team and trustees with a broader understanding of the school’s perceived value, market position and how to best position the school in the future.”

Leah Thayer is NBOA’s vice president, communications.

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