Diagnosing Why Enrollment is Down at Your School

One of my favorite TV shows is the medical drama House.  If you have not had a chance to watch this, I would really recommend it.  Hugh Laurie plays an unconventional physician who leads a team of diagnosticians at a fictional hospital in New Jersey.  Dr. House would often uncover obscure diseases and afflictions by using his keen powers of observation.  Think if you will a medical Sherlock Holmes.

Once a correct diagnosis was reached, then the patient was turned over to his or her regular team of physicians who were able to treat the patient.  As any physician will tell you, one of the most challenging, but the most critical steps in curing a patient is to accurately determine what is wrong and why the subject is sick

So how does this apply to improving enrollment at your school?

Diagnosing why your enrollment is down is the first and most important step in deciding what strategy should be deployed to increase your enrollment.  Though every school is different, generally enrollment issues come down to a combination of these three factors:

Being able to diagnose which one of these is contributing the most to your lower enrollment will allow you to focus on the big issues first and then methodically begin to address your enrollment challenges. 

Let us talk about each of these in more depth:


Poor Retention Rates at Your School

It may seem counter-intuitive to talk about retention when we are looking to increase enrollment, but if you are losing more students than you are attracting, you are fighting an uphill battle.  This can often be one of the hardest issues for a school leader to address.  It can be difficult to confront the reality that parents are unhappy with how your school is run.  Or, you might have the challenge that you have several students at your school that are just not a good fit for how your school operates.

Addressing retention should be your first step in increasing enrollment.  You cannot fill a bucket if it is continually leaking

Your first step is to review your retention numbers and try to understand the scope and extent of the problem.  What percentage of your students leave every year?  When do they leave?  Students changing schools in the middle of the year due to dissatisfaction is much more unsettling than those who leave over the summer.  Is there a specific grade level that sees a higher rate of students leaving?  And most importantly, why are they leaving your school?

You can answer most of these questions though a rigorous analysis of your enrollment metrics and data.  This will tell you “The What”.  But it will not tell you “The Why”.  Knowing why your families are dissatisfied with your school is the critical step to turn around retention trends.  There are two tools that you can use to try to uncover why parents are leaving and your school should really be doing both.

The first is an exit interview.  When a parent decides to pull their child out, you really need to know why.  You should try to have a phone call or a meeting with each family who is leaving to understand if this is something that was within your control (dissatisfaction with your school) or something that you could not control (family is moving).

Some families may not want to give you the time, but it is quite easy to create a small survey on Google Forms to email to them to try to get that information back.  Once you start to get this data, then it is a matter of analyzing it to understand that 24% of parents cite academic performance as their reason, or 42% cite lack of transportation.

Conducting exit interviews is fine, but at this point, the damage is done.  What you need to do is to understand if parents are becoming unhappy early enough to make changes and address their concerns before they start the process of shopping for a new school.  To do that, you need to be regularly surveying your parents.

Every school should be conducting a climate or a satisfaction survey every year.  Like it or not, schools are in a “free-market” environment where if a parent is not happy with what you are providing, they have many other choices for their student.  It is critical that your administration keeps your finger on the pulse of how your parents are feeling.  And this is not about relying on anecdotal knowledge or third-hand stories.  This is about doing a well thought out, quantitative survey that measures satisfaction levels across all your parents.

If you do this regularly (and keep the questions consistent), you will be able to uncover opportunities for improvements that will increase satisfaction at your school.  But if you are not asking parents how satisfied they are, you are missing the best opportunity to ensure that you are delivering the educational experience that makes them want to stay at your school.

How to improve retention at your school

  1. Analyze your numbers

  2. Develop an exit survey template

  3. Conduct a school climate survey


An Inability to Attract New Prospective Families

Are you “the best kept secret in town”?  That is NOT a good thing.  It seems simple, but if parents do not know about your school, there is no way that they will consider you for their children.  And then once parents know the name of your school, you must be providing them a story about your school that makes them want to learn more and ultimately enroll their children.

This “Marketing or Attraction” stage is one of the hardest steps for a school to get right.  And unfortunately, you are never done with this stage.  You will need to be constantly trying new things to get your name and your story out in the community.  And I hate to break it to you – this is the one that often comes with a price tag.

When you are diagnosing this part of your enrollment, start by thinking about how families learn about your school or really about any school.  Putting yourself into the shoes of your potential customers will allow you to think of things from their perspective rather than yours.

The first source that parents have to learn about your school is the school that their child currently attends.  Unless you are running a preschool, most if not all of your new students will have come from another school.  Having a well defined feeder-school strategy to engage with students who are reaching a transition year is a critical foundational step in your enrollment.  You should regularly be engaging with your feeders to increase the awareness, familiarity and preference of your school by those students and families.  If you are starting to see a decline in the number of students from your traditional feeders, start by looking at what your engagement strategy looks like and starting to tweak it.

If you are a Catholic school, one of the first targets that you should be engaging with is your own parish.  Ask your pastor for the names of all of the parishioners with children in your parish.  Compare that with your students.  Hopefully, you are enrolling at least 60-70 percent of your available families.  If you are not - then you need to ask yourself (and more importantly, them) why.  If your parish is not large enough to fully support your school, then you need to start to reach out to other parishes.  I put together an eBook on how to engage with your parish if you would like to download it.

Next, turn towards your most important marketing asset; your website.  But before we start to talk about the content on your website, how easily can a prospective parent find your website when they are searching on Google?  

Remember - they may not know the name of your school.  Have you put on your digital marketing hat and made sure that parents can find your school when searching?

I am not going to make you into a digital marketing specialist, but one of the easiest and most critical things that you can do is to register your website with Google My Business.  Google tries very hard to return searches that are geographically relevant to the person making the search.  One of the best ways for you to help Google know where your school is located, is to ensure that you have provided them all the correct information about your school.  

This does not automatically happen when you launch your website.  You need to go through the process of verifying your information with Google.  This is free and will take you about 20 minutes to complete, but it is probably one of the best investments you can make of your time to improve your ability to be found by Google.  

This video will walk you through the steps to register your site

Registering your site on Google My Business is just the first step.  There are a lot of additional things that you need to do to "Optimize" your search for search engines.  I covered Search Engine Optimization for schools in this post if you would like some additional reading.

However, your website may not be the first place that prospective parents go when they are searching for a school.  Often times, the online review sites will be the first place that parents stop in their digital search for schools.  If your profile on these sites is incorrect and even worse if there is a whole slew of bad reviews about your schools on this site, parents may never even go to your website.  It is a quick and easy process for you to go to different websites; Great Schools, Niche, Private School Review, and Public School Review, claim your profile and then ask parents to leave good reviews about you.

How to improve Enrollment at your school

  1. Ensure your have a good feeder school strategy in place

  2. Make sure parents can find you when searching online

  3. Register your site with Google My Business

  4. Claim your profiles on online review sites

  5. Increase the number of positive reviews on these sites

A failure to convert those interested families into enrolled students

So now you have attracted a group of parents to your website.  You have made them interested and they are thinking about taking the next step in their enrollment shopping and engaging with your school.  Congratulations!  However, the next step is where the rubber hits the road.  If your enrollment process is not effective, all of the hard work that you have done to this point to get them ready to engage with you is wasted.

The first thing you need to do is to ensure that you have multiple ways for them to take the next step on your website.  You may have intrigued them with great pictures and stories on your website, but they are not sold yet.  You need to give them a wide range of "next steps" for them to take on the path to enrolling at your school.  Some of these may include:

The schools that perform well in this phase are offering all of these and more.  They recognize that parents may need multiple opportunities to connect.  And, they want to make sure that they can connect no matter what the current lock-down policies are in place.

All of these needs to be listed on your website and most importantly, allow them to register to them online.  Millennials do not want to pick up the phone and call you. They want the convenience of being able to do this online.  Make it easy for them even if this requires you having to get into your website and building forms.

Now track your effectiveness in these events.  One of the key metrics that you want to look at when you are analyzing your tour effectiveness is your yield rate. Basically  This is the number of people who enrolled divided by the number of families that toured.  Driving up your yield rate is the most effective thing you can do to increase enrollment.

How to convert prospective families

  1. Give them multiple ways to engage with your school depending upon their level of interest

  2. Make it easy for them to engage by allowing online registration 

  3. Analyze your tour's yield rate

  4. Drive your yield rate as high as possible

Enrollment can seem overwhelming.  There are so many different levers that you can pull and tweaks that you can make to the system. But by organizing your activities in these three categories you can start to analyze what is working and what is not.  That is the first step in improving your enrollment.

Need more help in diagnosing your enrollment challenges?  Sign up for a free consultation and we can chat.

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Nick LeRoy

Nick LeRoy, MBA, is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board. Bright Minds Marketing provides enrollment and recruitment consulting to private, Catholic and charter schools. For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve its’ student enrollment, send an email to or call us at 317-361-5255.

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