chicken or egg - waitlist or selectivityWe all know that it’s pretty easy to be selective in your admissions process if you have a long line of eager candidates begging to get in the door. If you are one of those lucky schools, you may even have the luxury of higher tuition, bigger budgets, larger staff and more resources at your disposal. Some might even consider you a gatekeeper.

Given the economy over the past several years, gatekeepers are few and far between. Sure, there are schools that still have the lines, but it’s not like it once was. The free educational options are getting better, with some pretty nice options in charter and magnet schools. You may not have that eager line pounding at your door. In fact, you might even have very costly empty seats.

That’s when things start to change. You might start to see lower tuitions, dwindling budgets, staff cuts and extremely limited resources to get the things done. To counteract the problem, maybe you have moved (or are moving) toward open enrollment. You may not even limit who gets accepted. This is a dangerous cycle.

What’s Your Story?

Your school has a story. It has a mission. There are students and families out there who will identify with that story and mission – those who will enhance your story, those who will thrive. But you might not have enough of them. And that’s where things get difficult, particularly if your school is struggling. How can you justify turning away any student if you have additional seats to fill?

Turning someone away when you need them is pretty extreme, but if you think about it, it makes sense. If a family is going to spend money on an education for their child they are looking for very specific things: educational or spiritual growth, a well-rounded education, a community. Perhaps they’ve found those things in your school and decided to make the investment. They’ve found their perfect fit in your story.

This is where you need to be very careful. If your incoming students don’t represent your core values and mission, current families will feel alienated – fast. Retention can become a problem. Word of mouth will start to decline and might even get negative. Admissions becomes harder, and harder and harder.

Reverse the Cycle

It doesn’t have to go that way. In fact if you put a strong emphasis on recruiting, work to connect with the right families and be more selective in your process now, the waitlist will follow. I’ve talked with a few admissions and school leadership teams at under-enrolled schools that have made the tough decision to stick to their mission and only accept families that are a good fit. Their justification is that accepting just one bad fit will cause them to lose five good ones over course of a few years. Instead, these schools are looking ahead and taking the enrollment hit now that will increase their enrollment and retention over the years to come.

So, if you are struggling with enrollment, I challenge you to think about the potential impact of selectivity. Discuss it with the rest of your leadership team. Talk about your story and your mission and identify the profiles of the families and students that will thrive at your school. And if you’re on the fringe, try to resist the temptation to let in that one last student who will get you to your goal, but who doesn’t really belong.


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  • Nice blog post, Elyn. I especially like the observation that savvy admissions officers and institution leaders are taking view that “accepting just one bad fit will cause them to lose five good ones over course of a few years. Instead, these schools are looking ahead and taking the enrollment hit now that will increase their enrollment and retention over the years to come.”

    Having satisfied graduates will also result in alumni who will give back to their alma maters.

  • An economic downturn is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for a school to define, confirm, or to redefine itself. The HOS and the board must be supportive, of course, but staying on message with mission appropriate admits–even ramping up expectations and standards a bit–can yield a better and stronger school when the economic environment improves. The world economy continues to challenge, and sometimes it feels like it will never get better, but it will; this is a very good opportunity!

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