The Era of COVID’s Unexpected Opportunity: Retention

Not long ago we were heading into Spring Break full of uncertainty about what the effects of COVID-19 would mean for the rest of the school year. Waving goodbye to your students as they left for the break with the encouragement of “we will have more answers about the return to school in a few weeks.” 

Throughout Spring Break and into the month of April, the reality of the pandemic begins to set in, and schools must adapt quickly and without precedent. Schools begin deciding to finish the semester virtually, in-person summer school and camps canceled, senior graduation ceremonies reimagined into vehicle parades, domestic travel restricted and international travel almost completely halted, markets retract, and millions begin to get furloughed. Every metric pointed in one direction for private schools and their budgets: receding enrollment and budget shortfalls.


Fast forward to August, and something unexpected was revealed in a portion of private K-12 schools: enrollment surged. The value of in-person or hybrid learning environments were underestimated, and parents across the nation flooded admissions offices with concerns about their local public-schools. A NetAssets Study showed private schools received a 131% increase in applications during the month of July, as compared to July 2019. 

While a great problem to have, many admissions departments now have the unprecedented ability to focus on retaining all those new enrollees for years to come. With a large chunk of your 2021-2022 enrollment needs currently sitting in your classrooms, how do you keep those smiling faces in the seats they are starting to get comfortable in? 

Start retention initiatives right away

Retention must be a campus-wide initiative that all departments are truly bought into — and it needs to start before the first day of school. Many schools get great results by forming retention committees at the beginning of the year that meet monthly and consist of administrators from several departments, as everyone will have different insights on campus life in general or a student’s experience specifically. Charge your committee with reviewing procedures and protocols that hinder the student or parent experience, have discussions about specific students that may be on the radar for departing the school, and brainstorm possible new engagement events for students and parents. New parent surveys are very helpful in getting feedback and perspectives on changes that can be made or enhancements that can be added to existing events or procedures. 

Formulate a student leadership group tasked with the “student experience.” These students can help be the eyes and ears to the culture in the student body. Use these students to create new campus activities or enhance the current activities you already have planned out. They can help with registration, school tours, or even acclimation issues with other students.  This is especially important in the dormitories or housing units for boarding schools. 

Finally, create a marketing and editorial calendar so you can have a plan for sharing promotional videos, social media posts, and marketing articles before school starts. Re-enrollment typically begins in late November and culminates in December-January, so your window to get new material and create enticing videos and/ or marketing pieces is limited. Featuring stories of new families in newsletters or having new students show up in “hype” videos of campus activities will create a lot of the new family buy-in. By December, they should feel like no other school environment compares and that this is their new home.

Create a social environment that promotes student/ parent buy-in

The old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is a way of life in a private school setting and is one of the best assets that can separate you from competitors. With obvious limitations to large social gatherings, getting the students and parents involved with the events you are able to have will be crucial. 

For students, using the leadership programs to brainstorm and execute student events will give you the buy-in that’s needed and will make them event promoters too, exciting groups of kids that you, as school administrators, likely will not. Capitalize on seasonal events such as s’mores by the fire pits, movie nights on the lawn, or live music on campus performed by the students themselves. (Did someone say…karaoke?) 

For parents, using the parents association in a similar manner will go a long way. Continue to enhance already existing events and activities, but promote conversation for new initiatives the PA can champion or help support. It’s important that you keep expectations with an all-volunteer group realistic, but there can be great passion and personal interest with parents wanting to enhance the campus experience for their children and the faculty and staff molding them.  

Be flexible with your families on financial assistance

Families that unexpectedly enrolled their children into your school from a public option most likely viewed it as necessary rather than voluntary. Families had to weigh the cost benefits of being able to go back to work rather than stay home with the kids, the educational benefits of in-person learning compared to virtual, and weighing the “sanity” benefits of getting the kids out of the house and taught by teachers, not themselves. A recent Osmo Survey showed 80% of parents finding a new found appreciation for teachers, re-enforcing the perspective of parents wanting their children in the classroom learning and not at home. 

That said, when public schools have more consistent in-class learning, all the factors that drove those families to your school this year will be resolved. A family may have been able to figure out tuition for a year, but several years of payments may not have been financially achievable. Furthermore, the economic impacts are still being revealed, and there might be drastic situational changes for longtime families this upcoming year.   

Creating different payment plans for your families will be extremely beneficial, even for families receiving financial aid. Consider the ability to implement semester or monthly options for payments. 

Schools should also be more flexible with aid disbursements for families that show a yearning to stay. Spending aid dollars doesn’t always mean losing money. In terms of long-term retention efforts, the campus culture is extremely important, and word of mouth is still the best way to get new students. If possible, meeting families’ needs with tuition amounts can help retain families that contribute to the school culture and become excellent stewards of word of mouth recommendations. 

No matter what avenue you take for retention, the most important things to remember are to start it early, get everyone on board, and execute the year-round plan of building relationships with your students and parents in the local community. Share content that illustrates your schools’ values and the connections being made between the students, families, and faculty and staff.  It is imperative that we focus on the infinite game and continue taking strides to build the best versions of our schools every year — and retention is one of our best indicators of how we are doing. 

Re-enrollment will be here sooner than you think, are you doing enough to retain your families?  


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