Two years ago, our Admissions Director at Valley Christian Schools (Dublin), Lori Cantrell, presented our school leadership team with an idea. Having been in touch with some others in the admissions field, the topic of “Continuous Enrollment” came up. I’ve been involved with admissions for almost 6 years now, and this was a new term to me. Before we dive into Continuous Enrollment though, I’d like to back up and look at what I will call an Admissions Department Doctrine…beliefs that are set or held by the Admissions Department of every school. You may say, “Wait a minute, we don’t have a doctrine!” to which I would argue that any school that has an admissions department has a “doctrine” whether they know it or not. How refined it is, how much credence it’s given may definitely vary, but everyone has one. To understand where Valley Christian is coming from in the decision of moving to Continuous Enrollment, let me describe the “doctrine” I’ve embraced and believe has been reflected at the last two schools I’ve had the privilege of serving.
The Admissions Department is the unique avenue in schools that intersects (or should be intersecting) with all areas. This connectivity needs to be with the leader of the school, almost every employee on campus, current students, and perspective families.
There should be almost daily connection with the leader of the school, keeping them informed as to the current and projected enrollment status. There is communication back from the leader of the organization reminding both the faculty and the Admissions Department of the mission of the school, “Here is who we are, here are the students that we can embrace and help steer forward in life.”
Interaction with teachers is a must, finding ways to showcase what and how things are being taught in classrooms is imperative. Teachers in many ways become one of the greatest marketing tools a school can have. A stellar teacher in the classroom not only educates and casts vision, they build relationships with students and parents. When this happens, all of the sudden families do our advertising for us.
- Current Students
Great moments happen when the Admissions Department connects with current students. It is important, especially in the midst of tours, that new families can see connection and care with existing students. In turn, our existing students become “ambassadors” for the school, helping perspective families feel the warmth and excellence your school has to offer.
- Perspective Families
The Admissions Department needs to “mother/father” incoming parents and students. With education being such a large portion of one’s life, parents need to be convinced, nurtured through, and gently handed on to an academic advisor when choosing a new school. Due to the magnitude of this decision, much time needs to be dedicated to this.
Now, I’ll admit, we are far from perfect here at Valley Christian Schools, Dublin. In fact, in a sense, we are in the midst of taking apart our Admissions Department and putting it back together. It’s only 6 years old, and our Director, Lori Cantrell (who started the department) is just this month moving on to another opportunity in life. Thanks to her though, and a vision/doctrine of what Admissions needs to embody here at VCS, we have a system and plan in place that will make things easier on the next director we hire.
Now let’s get to Continuous Enrollment. I think we can all agree upon the fact that it’s not just important that we connect with the right families and get the right students at our schools, that’s only part 1 of the equation. Part 2 is figuring out how to keep them here.
In a nutshell, we are talking about “customer service.” I regularly look around at our schools inside and out and start asking questions like… Are we serving our customers well, not just in the classroom, but being good stewards of their money? Families are paying a significant amount of money to be here, are our facilities being kept up? Are before and after school programs being offered? How about lunch programs, are they providing choice, promoting health, and running smoothly? Are carpool lanes flowing? Are families getting a warm welcome from someone when they walk or drive onto our campus? What other kinds of barriers are in the way of creating great experiences here at VCS?
When asking questions like these, you have to throw in a “reenrollment” question. How hard is it for families to stay here? Is there anything we can do to simplify the process, making it easier for people to keep their child at our school?
My favorite Walt Disney story describes a grounds worker walking up to Walt in the early days of Disneyland. In the excitement of getting from ride to ride, people were cutting through a flowerbed and trampling flowers. The grounds worker suggested they put up a fence to make people go around the flowerbed. Disney, knowing the mind of his customer, told the worker that they needed to build a path through it.
The reenrollment process has been a drag on both VCS families and our staff. Continuous Enrollment has brought an answer to this struggle. Lori, in her last two years here, was able to convince and help implement a path for good customer service in this area.
The concept is not new, for instance you could look at Netflix, the gym you workout at, any membership you have in which you don’t have to reenroll annually, and understand the concept. Applied to education, here is what it looks like for us… Once you enroll at Valley Christian Schools, you are here until you graduate, or make it a point to un-enroll. No re-enrollment process, no papers, no re-enrollment checks cut (any administrative fees from this point on get split into payment plans), it’s that simple.
The hardest part about Continuous Enrollment has been the rollout. How do you communicate effectively with hundreds of families that you are trying something new that will benefit them approximately one year in the future?
In starting a year in advance, explanation was given to all families…when you re-enroll (in 2014) you will be signing a Continuous Enrollment contract also for 2015 (I will add our paragraph of explanation at the bottom of this blog). Of course they still had the option to pull their student out of the school until February 28, 2015.
“Why February?” you may ask. We identified the end of February as a date that would start helping us move forward faster in planning for the next school year. The sooner you have reenrollment numbers, the sooner you can start financially planning better, you are able to see new faculty needs, or plan strategically when it comes to classroom space on your campus. After February 28th, if parents have not un-enrolled their student/students, then they are automatically enrolled in Valley Christian Schools for 2015-2016 and beyond. The 3rd party tuition management system that we use (FACTS) automatically started withdrawing payments in the month of May.
What kind of Responses did you get?
Overall…great. Allow me to describe the feedback through using three different camps of response.
Camp 1. A majority fall into this camp, “Thanks for making it so easy! I love this!”
Camp 2. This was the confused camp (understandably), “I brought my re-enrollment check, and I don’t think I’ve signed any contract for next year yet. Are you sure my student is enrolled?” To which they were pleased when we responded, “Tear up your check, your son/ daughter has already been successfully enrolled for next year. Yes, we are sure.”
Camp 3. There were a handful of families that came forward wanting to un-enroll their students after the deadline (February 28th). We had done our absolute best in communicating the deadline. We emailed families for 1 year, reminding them there is a change coming. As the date got closer, the communication got stronger. The last two weeks of February we mailed and passed out a physical communication, emailed all families again, we even used our emergency communication system and left a voicemail with every family. Camp 3 responses ranged from, “This is the first I’ve heard of this.” to “This is deceitful.” Again, only a few came forward in this camp.
Can you define Continuous Enrollment success?
Let’s go back to what was stated earlier to define success.
- “Did we move forward faster in the planning of the 2015-2016 school year?” Faster…yes. Do we still have room to improve…Absolutely.
- “Has getting re-enrollment numbers sooner helped financially plan better for the 2015-2016 school year?” Absolutely.
- “Were you are able to see new faculty needs, or plan strategically when it comes to classroom space on your campus any sooner?” Absolutely.
I honestly think that this first year of transition was very successful. The handful from camp 3 that came forward had a chance to voice frustrations to our Director of Admissions, and then I was available to talk through any exceptions that needed to be made. When you unfold something of this magnitude in a school, you learn to anticipate a few bumps and bruises along the way. Moving to Continuous Enrollment made sense for our organization. It has set us on better course, and replaced a frustrating process with good customer service.
In closing, Continuous Enrollment is not for all schools, but in thinking along these lines, it helps us ask questions like, “Is there anything we can do for existing families that will make it easier for them to keep their children at our schools?”
Hope you found this helpful.
Language used in our contract regarding Continuous Enrollment.
I understand, and agree that this agreement extends until the graduation of the student(s) from VCS or the termination of this agreement as provided herein. Accordingly, I understand the term of this agreement shall be in effect from the date of enrollment and shall renew automatically for each successive academic year until graduation from VCS unless and until this agreement is terminated by VCS or written notice of termination from me is received in the VCS Admissions Office on or before February 28 of each year beginning February 2015. Simply stated, if my student(s) will not be returning the following school year, I assume all responsibility for notifying VCS in writing by February 28 of the current school year. I acknowledge that the tuition and fees charged for the academic year are for a place within VCS and not for a period of attendance and that the absence of a student during that academic year does not materially reduce the expenses of VCS. I agree that the absence, academic failure, or withdrawal of the student during the academic year shall not excuse, alter, abate or nullify my obligations for tuition and certain other charges and fees through the academic year.
A fascinating article for those of us from countries where continuous enrollment has only ever been the system we use (Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia). I found it very hard to understand annual re-enrollment when I first came across it. Surely when you accept a family your desire is for them to stay with you until the child graduates or the family moves out of the area. Maybe I have still not understood why you would want the effort and work of having to re-enroll every student every year.
I really like the concept and we have been discussing at NCS as we move forward. Just a small grammatical correction…they are “prospective” families, not “perspective”… Blessings – Pat