Cracking the Enrollment Code: What Parents Really Look for in a School (And How to Showcase It)

by | May 18, 2024

An iMission K-12 Recruitment Article

The psychology of choice is notoriously hard to predict. Yet, if magnet and charter school marketers can understand what parents are looking for in a school and why they choose the schools they do, they can better reach and recruit their target audience. 

While factors like academic performance and school facilities matter, the decision-making process is far more complex than parents just picking the “best” school on paper. Parents navigate a complex journey of touchpoints to get them to their final decision. The better schools can understand and market to this decision-making process, the better they can position themselves as the right choice for good-fit families.   

6 Key Factors Parents Prioritize in School Choice

Although parental decisions can vary widely, numerous academic studies have unpacked the intricate factors that lead parents to choose one school over another. Overwhelmingly, this research shows that parents rely on their social networks, both online and offline, to form their opinions about local schools. 

The factors they consider include:

  1. A School’s Reputation in the Community: Market research has found that a school’s reputation is defined by what friends and families say about the school — more than it is about hard data like test scores. Reputation is a leading factor in parental decision-making.
  2. A Positive Experience During Every Step of the Recruitment Process: For many parents, the recruitment process is unfamiliar. Experiences that are warm, welcoming, and personalized can go a long way toward easing anxieties. Conversely, a recruitment process that is bureaucratic, disconnected, and challenging can undo any of the positive associations a family has made with a school. Parents draw broad assumptions about the school based on its recruitment practices: Good or bad, they believe this is a reflection of what their child may experience. 
  3. How the School “Fits” with Their Child: Each school has a unique culture, and each child has unique interests. Does the school’s overall philosophy and vibe match their child’s needs and personality? Parents can get a sense of a school’s culture by way of student profiles, videos of classroom activities, or parent testimonials.
  4. Academic Rigor to Challenge their Child: Parents are wooed by specialized programs (STEM, arts, language immersion, etc.), project-based learning examples, and any unique curriculum offerings can help the school stand out from its peers.
  5. A Safe and Supportive Learning Environment: Beyond physical safety, this includes a sense of belonging, anti-bullying policies, and social-emotional support. Student testimonials and teacher interviews convey warmth, support, and mentorship. 
  6. Location and Convenience: The perfect school that’s too far away will quickly fall off the list. Proximity matters, and this is especially true for younger students. Parents want to see all transportation options, including walkability, bus routes, or even partnerships with ride-sharing programs.

While every family’s needs are unique, it is some combination of these factors that leads a family to decide which school is right for their child.

How to Build the School Reputation Parents Are Looking For

Reputation is paramount, but it is hard — but not impossible — to control. Too many schools assume that reputation will take care of itself, and they find themselves having to play defense against negative perceptions.  

Word-of-mouth recommendations and positive online reviews carry immense weight with parents choosing a school. With the right strategy, you can position your school as an attractive option for good-fit families. Here’s how:

  • Actively Manage Online Reviews: Parents visit sites like Niche, Great Schools, and even Google Business Profiles. Take ownership of your school’s online reputation and claim your school’s listing. Encourage families (as well as teachers and staff members) with positive experiences to add reviews to these sites. Respond constructively when negative reviews are posted.  
  • Use Testimonials — and Not Just on Your Website: Incorporate parent, student, and staff testimonials into social media posts, brochures, and even short videos played during open houses.
  • Stay Connected: Parents, alumni, and parents of alumni are important sources of community information about your school. Stay connected with them through email, text, and events. Use a constituent relations management (CRM) system to track who is most active in the network.
  • Showcase Community Partnerships and Influencers: Working with local businesses or nonprofits demonstrates investment in the wider community, something parents value. And when you showcase partners, they will be more likely to share your message. 
  • Cultivate Positive News Stories and Features: You know that there are great things happening in your school. You know about the impact that your school is having in the community. Share these stories. Use outreach public relations (not just sending out a press release), events, and other guerilla marketing tactics to get these stories heard. 

While you can’t control word-of-mouth, you can manage it. The more actively you cultivate your community, the more that community can boost your message to their networks. 

How to Market to Parent ‘Decision Points’

Remember, your more ardent school ambassadors once knew nothing about your school. Those new prospective parents can become your future ambassadors, but only with deft outreach and strategic marketing. Keep in mind the ‘decision points’ that every family must go through — choosing to register for an open house, choosing to apply, etc. — and market to each.

Create a Warm, Welcoming, and Personalized Process

Entering an unfamiliar recruitment process, parents can quickly be dismayed by bureaucracy and disorganization. Schools that are welcoming and inclusive during the recruitment process have the edge. 

  • Personalize Engagement at Every Step of the Recruitment Process: Treat each family with a personal touch, from the time they first inquire about the school, through application, through enrollment. You can use marketing automation technology to personalize outreach and automate follow-up communication. 
  • Show the School in Action: Display student work, share success stories, shout out parent/teacher involvement, and highlight quotes that celebrate differences and the value of your learning environment. Showcase the voices of the community. Give the slice-of-life view that outsiders can’t normally see. 
  • Emphasize Anti-Bullying Efforts: Parents want to join a community that’s kind and supportive. Zero tolerance for bullying is a must, but you can (and should) go beyond that. Showcase programs that promote empathy, respect, and cultural understanding.
  • Ditch the Generic: “Excellent education” is a given. Instead of vague claims, use student success stories that highlight how your school supports a variety of learners, or project highlights that celebrate collaboration and teamwork. Use data to support your points. Parents go by “feel,” but hard numbers help make a strong case. 
  • Don’t Neglect the “Soft Skills”: Empathy, problem-solving, and collaboration are what parents (and future employers) crave. Highlight how your school fosters emotional intelligence alongside traditional academics, and emphasize how these skills are even stronger when learned in a diverse and inclusive environment.

Go Above and Beyond Throughout the Recruiting Process

In the competitive landscape of school recruitment, there is no “admission season.” Building your pipeline of good-fit families is a 12-month-per-year job that, in many ways, is all hands on deck. 

Cultivate an online reputation that attracts and engages your audience. Then, from the first time a parent inquires until the day the student enrolls, be sure your school is warm and welcoming. Delight them with personalized engagement and with those “wow” moments that they will share with their networks. 

Many parents start their research online, so a compelling website and a digital marketing plan are vital. But don’t forget community events and partnering with local family-focused organizations.

Remember, though, that different demographics might have different priorities. A parent seeking a dual-language program has different needs than one focused on advanced math. Tailor your messaging accordingly.

And, at all points, track and analyze your data. Social media engagement, form submissions, bounce rate, click-through rate, and a dozen other metrics can help you get real-time feedback on your messaging. 

Ready to Elevate Your School’s Recruitment Strategy?

At iMission, we specialize in helping K-12 schools harness the power of CRM and marketing automation to attract and engage the right families. Our expert team is here to support you every step of the way, from building a robust recruitment pipeline to creating personalized outreach campaigns that resonate. Contact us today to get started!

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