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The Shift to Strategic Enrollment Management

Adopting a more holistic, strategic approach to student enrollment

by Jinal Jhaveri

The Imperative for a Strategic Approach to Enrollment

The days of students defaulting to their assigned neighborhood schools are becoming a thing of the past. Instead, parents are increasingly empowered to choose the right school for their child from among multiple options. As more families are given opportunities to find the best-fit schools for their children, school districts are finding that a new approach to enrollment is necessary in order to level the playing field among their families and ensure equitable access to a high-quality education.   

The new approach requires not only new enrollment policies and processes to support access to an expanded set of school options, but more critically, family empowerment will necessitate a cultural transformation that goes hand in hand with strategic enrollment management.

Adopting a more holistic, strategic approach to enrollment means transitioning to a customer service-oriented, relationship-based enrollment philosophy. It requires designing a new system and developing new responsibilities and competencies related to marketing and community outreach, school selection and support, and enrollment policy and operations.

Defining Strategic Enrollment Management

Strategic enrollment management is a comprehensive and deliberate approach to school selection and engagement. It begins with marketing and outreach, transitions into the application and registration process, and continues with ongoing family engagement and retention—spanning a student’s entire time attending school in the district.

There is no universal template when it comes to implementing an equitable enrollment system. Each city has a unique student population, geography, socio-economic landscape, political climate, operational capability, budget, and community relationship. As such, it is critical that the enrollment system is as differentiated and unique as the school district.

Depending on the specific issues that a district may be addressing, a variety of strategies can be considered—listed here from most straightforward to most comprehensive—to transform the enrollment experience:

  • Coordinated marketing and outreach:  Consolidate school profile information, generate awareness about school options and selection process, and put parent support plans in place.
  • Common timeline: Align all schools on the same dates for applications, lotteries, offers, and offer acceptance.
  • Common application: Participating schools all use one system-wide application process based on a common timeline.
  • Common enrollment: All students apply to multiple schools with their ranked preferences through a system-wide application and one common lottery that results in a single, optimized “match” for each student.
  • Common year-round processes: Schools follow one unified set of protocols for enrollment, transfers, and withdrawals across all schools throughout the year.

Besides ensuring that an enrollment strategy meets the school district’s unique issues, other factors also need to be considered such as financial resources, technology systems, staffing and capacity, stakeholder engagement, the charter landscape, and the community’s appetite for a new approach to enrollment.

Making the Transformation to Strategic Enrollment Management

Strategic enrollment management is a philosophical shift and a change management exercise that requires attentive leadership and careful stewardship. It takes time, can be challenging, and needs to focus on the unique set of problems districts are trying to solve.  

The stakes are too high to ignore or delay.  Districts’ financial sustainability, brand, and reputation are on the line. Those who make the shift will be changing the national educational landscape and setting a high standard for family empowerment and student success.

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