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The following guest post is by Sarah Sokolic, Director of Admissions, Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.

Back in May, I was privileged to attend a two-day admissions conference hosted by the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS), a membership organization whose mission is to foster the educational, ethical, and professional excellence of its member schools. Having attended many Jewish conferences during the last 10 years of my career as a “professional Jew,” I was excited to broaden the horizons a bit—meet some new and interesting colleagues, hone in on some best practices, and pick up some innovative, actionable items to insert into my recruitment-and-admissions strategy back at school.

The conference was extremely well-planned, content-rich and inspiring; the presenters knowledgeable thought leaders at the top of their fields; the participants friendly and supportive. I came back with pages and pages of notes. I wasn’t sure what I would do with them, but thankfully, my participation was partially underwritten by a stipend from PEJE. One of the stipend’s requirements: “Share your learning with PEJE and the field through at least one of various possible avenues.”

And here we are. Now back at school refreshed and recharged to engage in another exciting year, I offer some highlights from my NJAIS Admissions Conference, hopefully poignant and actionable. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.

Get to Know Your Peers

In 2012, the Secondary School Admission Testing Board conducted a comprehensive survey assessing the state of the independent-school admission industry. Some interesting findings came out of the study of 1800 responses. Many are probably not surprising, and some might be comforting.

  • There is little standardization on criteria for hiring admission directors, whether they oversee their own departmental budgets, and how they interact with their Boards. Turns out, 54% do not interact with their boards on a regular basis. Only 13% have a key role in setting tuition, and 30% have no role at all.
  • Three-quarters of admission directors are women, and they come from a wide range of backgrounds. Many were classroom teachers; some from marketing backgrounds; a few from the private sector. Male directors earn about 13% more than females. Hello, gender gap!
  • Directors have wide range of responsibilities from recruitment to assessment to marketing, fundraising, and community outreach.
  • All expressed a need for professional development.

Understand How to Market

Many of us are not just admission directors. We are also the marketing staff, the special events team, and the people in charge of community relations. Some marketing tips:

  • Make your website excellent. It is the window into your school. Use great photos and change them frequently. Fill it with interesting articles about what goes on in your school—don’t just push out logistical information. Have a link to admission on every page.
  • Learn about Google analytics and how to get the best search engine optimization tool to maximize Google searches about your school.
  • Facebook is one of the top-three traffic sources for private schools. Be on it. Push out good content, and “listen” effectively.
  • A brand is not a tagline, a surface identity, or a feeling. It is the market’s expectation of the experience particular to your school. It’s what you do in the eyes of your customers. It’s what you say and what you do.
  • Get out and survey what people think of your school. Your perception may be very different than reality. Then, sell the thing that matters most to your market, not what you are most proud of.
  • Word of mouth is the No. 1 best marketing tactic. It is also Nos. 2-10. An excellent website is No. 11.
  • Admission department budgets in the NJAIS range from $20,000 to $50,000 (not including marketing). The average school marketing budget ranges from $2,000 to $65,000. Make the most of what you have.

The Times, They Are (Ever) A-Changin’

It’s often said in the corporate world that the only constant is change. It’s no different in our world either. It’s imperative to keep up with trends both in and out of the industry. Here are some things to keep in mind:

The landscape of assessment is shifting. Transferable skills are more important than content knowledge and “non-cognitive” characteristics are of increasing significance to schools as they are now in the job market. The best schools are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist today. Do you know what a “Chief Listening Officer” is? Look it up. On Facebook.

The largest competitors to day schools are charter schools. The number of charter school in the United States is on the rise, and enrollment at independent schools has been on the decline since 2001.

Manage Risk with Care

Always keep in mind potential liability risks when it comes to admissions practices, document/information protection, privacy, and safety. Inconsistent or inappropriate practices can leave your school open to legal claims, even if you are an independent school. Things to consider:

  • What forms and documents do you keep on file? Make sure there is some benefit to collecting (and keeping) sensitive reports. Protect the private information of all applicants. Keep cabinets locked, and don’t keep files out in the open on desks or workstations.
  • Avoid speaking about applicants in public areas and with those not involved in the admissions process, such as other parents or community members.
  • Make sure your enrollment contract is a legal and binding document, especially if you use online forms. If you don’t have a real contract, the school can’t enforce payment of tuition.
  • Safety of your current students is a top priority. Do your due diligence to find out more about a transfer student to ensure they are not dangerous. Same for the parents. More and more schools are starting to do background checks on parents.

Attrition Prevention Is Even More Important than Recruitment 

It is much less expensive and labor-intensive to retain your current students than to recruit new students. Develop an attrition-prevention strategy. Here some good tips:

  • Offer Insiders’ Tours to current parents, to give them a VIP window into what’s happening at the school.
  • Invite parents into the classrooms as helpers.
  • Encourage teachers to send a lot of photos home. Parents love them.
  • Hold a “Your Child in Middle School” event for parents of third- and fourth-grade parents to sell them on your middle school. This is a great attrition-prevention tool, and most schools wait until fifth grade to do it, which may already be too late.

Sources and Resources

ERB: Education Review Board

SSATB: Secondary School Admissions Testing Bureau
CAE: Council for Aid to Education
The Arts and Science Group
Finalsite
Venable, LLP

Special thanks to Carole Everett, Executive Director of the NJAIS.