What can the car cup holder can teach us about school enrollment?

November 14, 2014, marked a key event in my life.  No, it wasn’t the day I got married or the birth of one of my children. On that fateful day in November, I sold my sporty Infiniti and joined the ranks of parents everywhere as the “proud?” owner of a Honda Odyssey minivan.


However, in the five years since, I am not ashamed to say that I like our minivan and the convenience it brought into our busy life with two rambunctious boys.


And cup holders!  My goodness! The Odyssey has 8 cup holders so no matter what seat you are in, a frothy beverage is only inches away.


Today, the cup holder is ubiquitous in all cars.  In fact, the new 2019 Subaru Ascent will have 19 cup holders!


But early on, not every manufacturer understood the importance of the cup holder. The American manufacturers understood this first.  Recognizing that Americans were having longer commutes and spending more and more time in their cars, Chrysler was the first to make a cup holder standard in their 1984 Plymouth Voyager minivan.


European manufacturers were slow to embrace this change.  Culturally, they did not believe in having drinks in their cars and so they were slow to recognize the need for cupholders.  European cars sales during this time, particularly those that targeted families, suffered a decline.  Was it because of the lowly cup holder?


It is tough to say, but it is illustrative to note that by not responding do a customer need, these companies were ignoring an attribute that was important to their potential customers.


So how does this apply to school enrollment?

Traditionally, car manufacturers marketed their cars around power, speed, and performance.  But as the wants and desires of their customers changed, they changed their product and how they talked about it to be more responsive to what their customers wanted.  As customers began demanding more convenience and comfort, car designs began to reflect this as well.


The story of the cup holder offers an interesting example of how customer’s needs can change over time.  And what attributes you may think are important to their purchase decision (acceleration, speed, turning radius) can be overshadowed by something you never even considered important (the cup holder).

Understanding what potential parents are seeking in a school is critical to achieving your enrollment goals.  Here are the three steps that you need to take to understand the attributes that parents are seeking in a school.


Ask your parental customer what they need!

How do you uncover customer needs? The first step is to simply ask them and gather their feedback strategically.

For a lot of schools, their perceptions of what parents (and students) want are shaped by anecdotal feedback.  The persistent parent who is constantly asking for a new type of sports program, or the complaints about a certain aspect of the school.  This is valuable feedback, but you need to recognize that it is not necessarily representative of your entire parental base.


It can also overlook smaller things (like the cup holder) that parents want but haven’t risen to the level of sending an email or a discussion with the principal.


The schools that I have seen do this the best have committed themselves to multiple communication and feedback channels between parents and the administration.

They conduct a yearly school climate survey to understand all of their parents’ perceptions about the school.  But most importantly, they don’t just field a survey, they use that information to shape strategic plans for the school.  They also are very transparent with the results to their parents.  Post survey, they always provide the results to the parent body with their plan to address any issues that parents have raised.

They have created anonymous forms that parents can use to raise questions or to provide feedback to the principal.  Not every issue can be or should be covered in a survey, so these schools have set up a simple Google form that allows parents to provide feedback or ask questions about the school’s operations.  Then the principal will address these in a weekly newsletter to parents.

They offer opportunities to meet with the administration outside parent - teacher conferences.  The schools that do this well offer a monthly coffee with the principal where parents can ask questions or learn more about the activities of the school.  This low pressure and collegial environment often can bring up more ideas on ways to improve the school or attract more families.


Understand the why

Sometimes a survey might not be able to tell you exactly why parents are acting in a certain way.  Their actions may seem illogical to you, but in their mind, they are responding in a way that allows them to satisfy the needs that are important to them.  This is why I advocate doing yearly focus groups with parents.

Let me give you an example of what can be uncovered in this sort of exercise.

A recent public-school client was struggling with enrollment at their high school.  They were losing students to the neighboring public-school system. Even though the client had higher graduation rates and was generally seen as an academically strong school, every year, they had parents leaving them for the competition.


When we spent some time talking to parents, we found out that parents were choosing the different public-school option because of the opportunity to take dual credit classes at that school (my client generally offered only AP classes).  Parents told us that they liked the guarantee of getting college credit and having their son or daughter starting college with the first semester already done (and paid for!).


Though my client believed that parents would naturally gravitate to a more rigorous academic experience (AP classes), they didn’t appreciate that to their parents, what was more important was the assurance of college credit with the resulting financial benefit.


Customer's needs or their reasons for making decisions can often be different from what you as an educational professional would do.  That doesn’t make it a wrong decision.


You can either try to convince them to see your point of view, or you can meet their needs more effectively.  In the case of this client, they increased the awareness of their dual credit program and added some additional ones to try to be more responsive to their parent’s needs.


Recognize that needs change and evolve

I recently conducted a survey for a Catholic high school.  One of the things that this school wanted to understand was what attributes made parents select this school.  We had a list of different traits and asked parents to rank their top reasons for choosing that school.  We then broke the parents into groups by their length of time at the school to understand if/how these had changed.

“Experienced” Parents who had been with the school for more than 6 years indicated that the school’s Catholic identity was the number one reason why they chose the school — with almost 50% choosing this as their top selection.

But when we compared this to newer families, those who had been with the school for less than 2 years, those parents indicated that the culture of the school was their most important criteria.  Forty percent chose culture as their number one reason versus only 14% who selected Catholic identity first.

This was truly eye-opening to the client, but not a surprising finding.  This is an ongoing trend that we see with faith-based schools.  Pew Research has previously reported on how more and more families are identifying themselves as spiritual, rather than religious.

This does not mean that parents are rejecting the faith element of the school, but rather, they are saying that morals and character-based education are the factors most important to them.

This also does not mean that parents did not like the faith-oriented aspects of the school – these newer parents rated the theology and religious instruction components higher than those more “experienced” families.  But what it tells us is “how” we are explaining a component of the school is important.

Explaining how the school’s Catholic identity is lived through the culture of the school becomes critical to attracting those families who view faith-based education from a different perspective or lens than their peers from 5 or 10 years ago.

Parents’ needs and desires are not static.  They change and evolve as their kids get older and as values in society change.  What was important to parents 10 years ago and the reason why they chose your school may not be as relevant today.

Though some core needs of parents- strong academics, character building, and a nurturing environment — are universal, you might be surprised as to how they define these aspects at your school.

These changes mean it is critical to talk to your parents and understand their needs.  You must understand what is important to them and if you are delivering against their needs.  By doing this, you are guaranteed to improve your school enrollment.

At the end of the day, ask yourself if you are providing your parents with enough cup holders?

Are you looking for assistance using customer insights to your advantage in school marketing?

Lets Chat! Lets Chat!

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.

Discover the difference

531 West 83rd Place
Indianapolis, IN 46260

P: 317.361.5255

Bright Minds Marketing

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get our best enrollment advice sent directly to your inbox.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get our best enrollment advice sent directly to your inbox.