By Dr. Harry Bloom
In naming PEJE’s Atidenu (Hebrew for “Our Future”) 18-month recruitment and retention program (generously co-funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation), we were motivated by a desire to convey two key points. First, that research has consistently shown that day school graduates are not only highly successful, but also highly reliable guarantors of the Jewish future. Second, that the recruitment and retention challenges of the 21st century require a focus on the marketplace realities of today and tomorrow, and not an adherence to past practices that no longer reflect our realities.
So, what exactly has changed? Well, at least four fundamental factors. Each change has implications for how our schools need to recruit students.
The Importance of Partner School Relationships: In the past, admission professionals and Heads of School placed a strong emphasis on cultivating referrals and accessing lists from “partner” schools (preschools or middle schools) as a cornerstone of their recruitment strategy. This is no longer a reliable strategy. Many partner schools are not willing to advocate for particular next-level schools, or are disinclined to do so because they perceive day schools as potential competitors. Cultivation visits and activities aimed at inspiring feeder institution endorsement and list sharing are becoming less and less effective. Even more fundamentally, recent PEJE research among prospective day school families in Chicago indicates that prospective day school parents are intensely and personally involved in the school-shopping process and are prepared to make different decisions for each one of their children. They are less reliant on advocacy from feeder schools and place greater value on peer recommendations in making their school choices.
One-Size-Fits-All Marketing: Past wisdom has been that day schools can market in a homogeneous fashion to a monolithic target day school population via a mix of open houses, global print advertising, websites, and Facebook pages. In fact, a careful analysis of the populations of our schools indicates that they are actually comprised of diverse market segments with distinctive school choice criteria. Members of these segments need to learn about how their particular concerns will be uniquely addressed or they will not choose a particular school. Communication messages must demonstrate – ideally with proof – how these needs will be met, and they must be delivered through media or messengers (see below) the segment members particularly value.
The Role of Lay Leadership: The historical premise was that parent volunteer committees should be excluded from involvement in the admission process to avoid their having undue influence over who gets admitted and receives preferential treatment. This has been replaced by a realization that it literally takes a village of day school advocates to fill a school and that this can be facilitated by committees of parent ambassadors focused on particular market segments. Moreover, any downsides to lay involvement in recruitment can be ameliorated through clear policies defining role boundaries. Because, as noted above, personal advocacy by peers is a core element of the day school shopping process, trained segment specific ambassadors who can serve as extensions of the school need to recruited, motivated, trained, and managed. Valuable roles for parent ambassadors include building lists of suitable prospects from their social networks, making the case for the school verbally and via social media (as appropriate), and helping to create a social experience that envelopes prospective families.
Role and Character of the Admission Professional: The premise that the ideal admission professional is an individual with superb interpersonal skills who focuses on managing the admission pipeline from inquiry to matriculation is outdated. In an environment where there are simply not enough inquiries coming into the funnel and feeders are unreliable, new skillsets are required. These include sound consumer marketing understanding and instincts, an appreciation for the value of market research, analytical skills, and the ability to cultivate and manage volunteers. The skills required of today’s admission professional are akin to those required of the most sophisticated development directors. In reality, the stakes in recruitment are higher than in development since most day schools rely on tuition revenue for well over half of their annual income versus a much smaller percentage for development. Yet, most schools underspecify the skills and talents and manpower needed and underpay their admission professionals. They face a revolving door of professionals who feel they need to seek greener pastures. Based on benchmarking among 50 day schools, the average day school employs 1.4 full-time-equivalent development personnel at a cost of $271 per student while employing 0.7 full-time-equivalent admission personnel at a cost of $190 per student.
Due to shifting realities, Jewish day schools need to reimagine their student recruitment programs. They need to shift from a focus on feeders to a focus on market segments. They need to shift from a one-size-fits-all marketing program to a segment specific program that heavily tailors messaging and media to the needs and demands of vital market segment members. And, they need to build a cadre of more qualified, more strategic, better-compensated admission professionals able to build and nurture a network of market segment ambassadors. There is too much at stake. In fact it is “Atidenu,” our future!
Dr. Harry Bloom is PEJE’s Strategy Manager for Day School Sustainability. He manages the Atidenu recruitment and retention program, generously co-funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation.