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Survey: Is It Time for Schools to Embrace Continuous Re-enrollment?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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“Evergreen Enrollment” or “Continuous Enrollment,” in which a student’s enrollment is automatically renewed each year unless otherwise decided, is a timely topic in the independent school world. The model promises several significant benefits – student retention, ease of re-enrollment, and greatly reducing the workload of school admissions officers being chief among them – but also comes with several potential pitfalls. In fall 2017, a survey was sent to independent schools in the Southeastern United States and in California, inviting them to share their perspectives and experiences with continuous enrollment. 

 

The survey was created and administrated by a 3-person team:

  • Blair Fisher, head of school at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, Mobile, AL
  • Carl Parke, head of school at the Gooden School in Sierra Madre, CA
  • Terrence Briggs, partner in the Boston law firm of Bowditch & Dewey  

 

A total of 52 schools shared their experiences and perspectives (see below for a complete list of participating schools). Note that out of respect for confidentiality, we will not link any particular school to any given response in this report. Also, for ease of reading, we will refer to “Continuous Enrollment” as “CE” throughout this report.

 

Continuous Enrollment: Hoped-for Benefits

Proponents of CE argue that implementing the CE enrollment model has many benefits. These include:

Lower student attrition rates. The concept of CE is very similar to the automatic renewal of many other consumer services – if it requires conscious action to stop a particular service (in this case, education at a certain school) while the default “easiest path” is to continue it, studies show that the service is more likely to be continued. CE is considered a gentle psychological nudge to reenroll while also signaling to the family that the school wants their child for his or her entire educational journey.

Admissions office efficiencies. Every school has families that reenroll each year but which require much “chasing” to get their contracts turned in. The result? Many wasted admissions hours. CE promises to eliminate this dynamic and give admissions staff more time to seek new enrollment.

Simplified re-enrollment for parents. With many student records remaining static from year to year, CE promises to ease parent paperwork completion requirements; instead, they simply update information as needed (such as contact information, medical information, and so on) but don’t have the same volume of information to supply anew each year. 

Improved records accuracy. Each time a family has to re-submit information, the opportunity exists for mistakes to be made. Once accurate information is within the school’s system, then it is less likely to be overwritten by inaccurate information if it is left alone.

Rationalized financing. Many schools finance tuition in ways that do not allow parents to pay on a recurring, steady basis. CE could allow schools to spread out financing further and allow parents to better plan their family cash flows. Similarly, schools with CE could likely have budgetary certainty earlier in the annual cycle, allowing for better financially plan the following year at an earlier date.

 

Worries about Continuous Enrollment

What are the potential worries or challenges about moving to Continuous Enrollment?  

Parent Opposition. Some schools worry that parents would see the transition in a negative light.  Parents, who are so often financially snared into unwanted spending in other areas of their life are naturally wary of any “automatic” renewal and could see CE as a way to “trap” them into re-enrolling or somehow limit their freedom to choose each year. 

Costs Involved in Transitioning to Continuous Enrollment. The investments which must be made in order to transition to CE are not insignificant. There are direct financial costs involved, most often in creating/reviewing new contracts for legal reasons and potentially in changing SMS software. Additionally, there are significant indirect costs involved in managing the above, such as planning and implementing, creating strong messaging, and the like. These frictional costs also create a series of hurdles which must be overcome in order to implement a CE model. 

Student Management System may not support Continuous Enrollment. This concern, while lessening as SMS system capabilities increase, remains real. This is especially true at smaller schools with more limited resources and which thus may have remained with an older SMS provider or version.  

Contract Language/Enforcement. To be legally enforceable, CE contracts must contain specific language generally lacking from most traditional enrollment contracts. Thus, the commitment to transitioning to CE also entails committing to the legal costs involved in creating a new contract. Additionally, some highly consumer-oriented states may void even strong contracts if a dispute arises.  

 

It’s not surprising, then, that given both the potential benefits and drawbacks of CE, schools occupy positions all along the implementation spectrum based on their unique situation, philosophy, and priorities.

 

Survey Results

When asked about their school’s position along the CE continuum, schools responded as follows:

 

Currently considering transitioning to CE

44%

Not considered CE

26%

Successfully transitioned to CE, happy with change

17%

Studied moving to CE but decided against the change

7%

In process of transitioning to CE

4%

Attempted CE, returned to traditional model

2%

 

Clearly, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds CE. Most early adopters have been satisfied with their decision, but not all – one returned to a traditional enrollment model. Another sizeable number of those have studied CE and decided against for several reasons. Schools are generally conservative institutions when it comes to change, and thus it is no surprise that the bulk of schools are currently seeking more information from the experiences of early-adopting schools to inform their own decision-making. More than one-fourth of all responding schools have not considered CE, either because it hasn’t really hit their radar screens, because they lack the resources to seriously study it, or because they are satisfied with the traditional enrollment model.

 

The remainder of this report explores each set of responses in more detail in order to provide the greatest possible amount of data to interested schools, wherever they may individually fall along the CE spectrum.

 

Not Considered Continuous Enrollment

Sixteen schools comprise this group. Of them, nearly half were not aware of the CE model. The remainder are either satisfied with their current enrollment model, feel that the benefits would not justify the effort and resources required to transition, or are aware of CE but do not feel that they have enough information to make a decision for their school.

 

Comments:

“We do not have issues or problems with our current enrollment model so why change?”

“We continue to study the idea of CE as we determine our re-enrollment process going forward. We are not far enough along in our study and discussions about CE to seriously consider a change at this time.”

“We have talked about the possibility but are hesitant to go to the model. Fear of surprises or the ability to hold people to contracts.”

“We have heard that it’s hard to implement in our state.”

“We have not had the time to adequately research this enrollment model. Our constituents loathe change, so we’d have to be 100% convinced that this would be the right move for our school.”

“We are aware of the model and would like to learn more before we make a decision.”

 

Considered – But Rejected – Continuous Enrollment

Only four respondent schools fall into this category. The reasons for consideration closely mirrored those given above – the schools hoped that it might lower attrition, increase workplace efficiency, and provide parents with a simpler re-enrollment experience. Ultimately, however, the potential concerns outweighed the potential benefits for this group of schools. Salient among the concerns were worries of parent opposition and upset, whether the school’s SMS would support CE, concerns over contract wording and enforcement, and that an oversight might cause them to “miss” the opportunity to counsel out.

 

Currently Considering Transitioning to Continuous Enrollment

By far the largest group of schools (24/52, or 44% of respondents) is in this category, and clearly best represents the typical independent school in America – interested and desirous of learning more about CE, but cautious about the hurdles and wanting to see demonstrated benefits before committing to the implementation process.  

 

While these schools learned about CE through a variety of means, by far the most common was through professional literature. Initial exposure to CE came from the following sources:

 

Professional literature

60%

Conference presentation

20%

Nearby school implemented CE

8%

Senior administrator had CE at previous school

4%

Regional association

4%

Colleague at another school

4%

 

Consideration of CE in these schools is given for the same overall reasons:

  • To make re-enrollment easier for parents (94%)
  •  To ease re-enrollment workload and allow admissions staff to focus on gaining new enrollment (84%)
  •  To reduce student attrition (52%)
  •  To allow parents to more easily finance tuition (24%)
  •  To reduce budgeting uncertainty (4%)
  •  To express school’s desire to serve students for their entire educational journey (4%)

 

These schools expressed similar concerns to the larger independent school community:

  • Parent opposition to change in model (64%)
  • Effectively explaining/“selling” the benefits of CE to families (64%)
  • Creating a clear and enforceable contract (60%)
  • Frictional/logistical issues involved in transitioning (44%)
  • SMS/LMS of school not supporting of CE (28%)
  • Financial costs of transitioning (20%)

 

Schools considering CE are seeking data through a wide variety of sources. 

  • Speaking with other schools about their experiences (by far the most common)
  • Conferences/seminars/webinars
  • Education consultants
  • Legal consultants
  • Parent feedback
  • LMS/SMS representatives
  • Professional literature
  • Association recommendations

 

Several schools responded that the results of this survey would play a large role in their decision-making and implementation processes!

 

Attempted Continuous Enrollment, Returned to Traditional Enrollment Model

Only one school reported that they attempted to transition to continuous enrollment but then returned to a traditional enrollment model. They did so because opposition within their community was strong enough to compel them to abandon the attempt. No other information was given to provide context or explanation, so it is unclear as to whether underlying cultural problems undermined the attempt, if support was not built prior to the change, or if some other factor(s) were at play.

 

Successfully Transitioned to Continuous Enrollment, Positive Experience Thus Far

Of the survey group, seven schools have already completely transitioned to CE and have had positive experiences from the change. Both their transition rationales and concerns mirror those already given, so we will focus more on their transition experience.

 

Study Process and Initial Decision

As a strategic play, transitioning to a CE model was in every case a board-level decision. Most commonly, the board of trustees was informed of the model, sought and received information (see above for information sources), weighed benefits and risks, and came to a decision. Senior school administrators (especially the head of school, CFO/business manager, and admissions/advancement director) also had key roles in the decision-making process. Other administrators (marketing director, division heads, technology director) helped shape implementation strategies. School administration, once tasked, executed the transition.

 

Communication

All of these schools recognized the importance of communicating this change in model to their various stakeholder groups, and worked to create positive, upbeat messaging emphasizing the expected benefits from the transition. The messaging varied somewhat from school to school, but general entailed a combination of emails to the community, letters to parents, placement in the regular school newsletter, videos, “State of the School” addresses, and face-to-face small group conversations. Schools were unanimous that the communications had to be made in a variety of formats and on multiple occasions. All emphasized the importance of transparency and openness to families, emphasizing that they would be very well-informed about impending deadlines and cutoff dates.

 

Implementation Timeline

Again, while there was some variability between the individual schools in this group, all recognized that creating a rational, attainable timeline for the transition process was critical for success. There are many moving parts which must be considered: communications, legal review, contract changes, admissions/business office alignment, potential LMS/SMS support challenges, and updating forms and processes. It was generally deemed to be at least a year-long process from decision to implementation, and for some schools the transition process, from research to implementation, lasted two years. This was clearly not a quick or light decision.

 

Reception

In every school in this group, the reaction from parents was strongly positive:

“Most were happy and assumed their child would stay enrolled until graduation anyway.”

“Our families were very positive. We didn’t really have any opposition, only a few questions which we were able to address since we had done our research and made a plan.”

"Very positively; only opposition was from one disgruntled parent.”

“GREAT response. We’ve had over 90% re-enrollment every year…”

“There wasn’t any opposition since it saved families’ time completing the same info each year.”

“No issues whatsoever – we planned and communicated, so they trusted.”

 

Benefits

These schools did realize significant benefits from the transition to CE:

  • Several schools reported that student retention has been improved;
  • Almost all reported that parents appreciated the simpler process; and
  • Admissions staff have been freed up to focus more on new enrollment activities.

 

Interestingly, for one school, the business office also gained time by not having to mail and then track contract packets. While some schools have studied the possibility of spreading out tuition payments, none of these schools modified their tuition payment schedule, so there has been no impact on family financing of tuition and related costs. 

 

Issues/Concerns/Drawbacks

The issues or concerns experienced by this group varied but overall were minimal:

  •  For one school, it revolved around ensuring that with LMS/SMS software “synced” with their business software. 
  •  Some parents were confused that CE still requires them to update some student information each year. 
  •  One school strongly recommended that any school considering the move retain outside counsel to ensure that CE contract is worded in such a way as to stand up to any possible challenge.
  •  Finally, only one school faced parent opposition that may have contributed to the departure of families.

 

Legal Elements

Each school in this group recognized that their existing contract would have to be reworded for CE enforceability. Wisely, each school sought legal counsel in the process. Most commonly, schools “tweaked” elements of their existing contract to make clear that the contract was a perpetual one unless proper withdrawal protocols and deadlines were met. The second model followed saw schools obtain sample CE contracts, review, and adopt, thus completely replacing their existing contract. Based on its experience, one school recommended that considering schools ensure any new contract contains the language needed to ensure the school could separate a non-mission-appropriate student at its discretion.

 

Advice and Conclusion

The schools in this group gave remarkably similar advice. Foremost, they emphasized the need for high levels of transparency and a strong and redundant communication plan so that parents understood why the transition was being made and how it would benefit not only the school, but themselves as well. Second, they urged that the transition be well-planned and well-organized, with a clear, unrushed, and achievable timeline in place ahead of time. Finally, schools emphasized the need for legal guidance in the contract revision process. 

 

Sample comments include:

“Plan, communicate, and speak with all constituents. The business office and admissions office need to communicate thoroughly. Technology directors may need to be involved if you are utilizing online enrollment.”

“Having outside counsel is my biggest recommendation. Also, give yourself at least a year to get set up for the changeover.”

“Give them [parents] an out at a later date without penalty. This went a long way to reassure our parents.”

“Explain that records and info still need an online update annually.”

“Make sure that your dates are accurate and aligned.”

 

In the end, was it worth it? Despite all the challenges and work involved in making the transition from traditional enrollment to CE, the schools in this group were unanimous in their response to the question “Would you do it again?” Every one of these schools stated that they would.

 

Summary/Conclusion

Continuous enrollment is a subject of much current interest in today’s independent school world. As such, we created this survey in the hope that it would provide valuable data not only for our particular schools but also for many other schools seeking more information and hoped for wide participation to strengthen its findings.  While we had wished for a larger data set, we feel confident that the responses we received well-captured the essential elements of continuous enrollment – the potential benefits and the concerns, important considerations for study and debate, and key pieces of the implementation process. It is our hope that this report provides valuable data for those schools considering continuous enrollment, and we invite further feedback and dialogue. Finally, we would like to thank the schools that invested the time to complete the survey and hope especially that the results yield dividends for their efforts. 

 

Participating Schools

We would like to thank the following schools for their participating in the Evergreen/Continuous Enrollment Survey:


·      Alabama Waldorf School

·      Altamont School

·      American School (Mexico City)

·      B'nai Shalom Day School

·      Brainerd Baptist School

·      Bright School

·      Cape Henry Collegiate

·      Charlotte Preparatory School

·      Children's School of Atlanta

·      Cornerstone Christian Academy

·      Currey Ingram Academy

·      Deerfield-Windsor School

·      Dunham School

·      Durham Academy

·      Ensworth School

·      Episcopal School of Knoxville

·      The Fletcher School

·      Foothill Country Day School

·      Gooden School

·      Goodpasture Christian School

·      High Meadows School

·      Holy Spirit Preparatory School

·      John Millege Academy

·      Kenston Forest School

·      Keys School

·      Live Oak Classical School

·      Mason Preparatory School

·      Mead Hall Episcopal School

·      Miami Country Day School

·      Mt. Bethel Christian Academy

·      Montverde Academy

·      Omni Montessori School

·      O'Neal School

·      Pegasus School

·      Pine Crest School

·      Prospect Sierra School

·      Providence Day School

·      Randolph School

·      Richmond Waldorf School

·      Salisbury Academy

·      St. Martin's Episcopal School

·      St. Paul Christian Academy

·      St Paul's Episcopal School (Mobile, AL)

·      Tehiyah Day School

·      Torah Day School of Atlanta

·      Triangle Day School

·      Trinity Presbyterian School

·      Westchester Country Day School

·      Westridge School

·      Woodlawn School

·      Woodward Academy

·      Wornick Jewish Day School 


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