When I first meet with a client to discuss doing a school enrollment engagement for their Catholic, charter, or private school, one of my first questions is: “Why are you struggling with your enrollment?” This always leads to an interesting conversation, but often school leaders don’t know the reason why their numbers are down. They just know that they aren’t seeing the number of students that they saw in years past.
One of the most critical parts of my engagement with school is to try to understand “the whys?” Diagnosing the issues or barriers is the most important component of developing a strong marketing plan and ensuring consistent enrollment.
So, what can a car manufacturer teach us about school enrollment? Toyota is one of the most successful companies in the world. In the 70’s and 80’s when Toyota was beginning to penetrate the US market, they faced American car companies that had very entrenched positions. But, American made cars had poor manufacturing quality and frequently broke down. So, Toyota quickly established a position as a very reliable car that didn’t require much maintenance – a key selling point.
They could do this because of the pioneering work of their production chief, Taiichi Ono. Ono is credited with introducing the concept of Kaizen, or continuous improvement. At its core, this approach says that you can solve any problem by asking “The 5 whys”. By going through this exercise, you can quickly diagnose the root cause of any problem. Toyota has been very successful in implementing this system and their approach (6 Sigma) has been copied by most major companies and is now a widely-used system of improvement in manufacturing as well as business operations by successful companies.
So how does this apply to your school?
Schools generally are very data rich, but analysis poor. The data is there, but schools haven’t asked the critical 5 why’s to get at the underlying reason for their struggles in attracting students. Let’s use an example from one of my clients to show how this works in practice.
My client was a K-8 Catholic school in the Midwest. But their enrollment was slipping and they brought me in to help to develop a plan for them. Using the “5 Whys” approach, allowed us to understand what some of their challenges were and to develop an action plan to address them.
Question 1: Why is overall enrollment down?
- We looked at retention which had stayed at 95% over 5 years so retaining students was not a problem.
- For this K-8 school, they were still attracting the same number of 1-7th graders that they had in the past.
- Their incoming kindergarten numbers were 50% of what they had been 5 years ago.
Question 2: Why are kindergarten numbers down?
- The school had traditionally pulled from their parish to fill their kindergarten seats, but the parish was beginning to shrink in size, decreasing the “available pool” of parish kids.
- They had not normally tracked preschools as feeders, but when we looked at the numbers, we identified that 4 preschools represented 85% of their kindergarteners.
Question 3: Why are we not a choice for kindergarten students in more of the nearby preschools?
- In this project, we identified almost 100 preschools within a 5-mile radius, yet the school was only successful at attracting from 4 of these
- Initial discussions with some of the preschools around the client showed that they didn’t even consider the client when parents asked for a recommendation.
Question 4: Why don’t parents at these nearby preschools know about or consider our school?
- The answer became obvious. The school had never conducted any sort of outreach to these preschools. They had just done their typical approach to marketing which had been primarily parish outreach.
And then the final question? Why are we not actively engaging with these preschools to tell them about our school?
- Because we have never done it before!
This is a simple example of trying to diagnose a problem and creating a plan to address it. This client began to conduct outreach to a select group of 10 nearby preschools that they felt represented the best fit for their school. They increased their incoming kindergarten class by an additional 8 students over the prior year. They are also now in the process of deepening those relationships by offering kindergarten readiness screening and a more collaborative set of efforts between the preschools and their school. This will benefit them for many years to come.
For many school leaders who are struggling with enrollment, it can be hard to start the process of improving your marketing. However, if you begin the process with a strong diagnostic approach that includes asking the 5 Whys, you will find that the answers will start to reveal themselves.