Change and complexity: the state of international school admission
By Aimee Gruber

Underlying the survey data in the Enrollment Management Association’s 2019 International School Admission Report is one common thread: the increased complexity facing admission directors today. How can admission professionals better understand and stay ahead of key challenges? How can school leaders provide them the support and training they need to do so?


Challenge #1: Enrolment concerns are real

To meet fast-growing worldwide demand, there has been a four-fold growth in the number of international schools opening in the past two decades. This heightened competition is clearly felt by the survey respondents. “Competition from other international schools” was the top enrollment challenge. Relatedly, other challenges included “marketing” and “pressure to meet enrollment goals.”


How can international schools survive and thrive in this competitive marketplace?  The expanding educational choices available to families means that a school must firm up its value proposition and be crystal clear on its mission. The admission professional — who has access to data and deep insights about families — should play a key role in this leadership-level discussion.


Admission professionals must also take their marketing strategy to the next level; understanding their market position, creating messages that resonate with different audiences, and smoothing the whole enrolment journey. School leaders can support them by providing adequate staffing and training. While nearly all respondents (92%) stated they were interested in training, only 65% reported having a professional development budget. The top areas of interest for skill development amongst respondents were data-driven decision-making (68%), marketing (67%), and communications (64%).


Challenge #2: Swiftly shifting business practices

Today, fewer corporations are fully covering educational expenses for their expatriate employees (traditionally the primary source of students for international schools). Indeed, 33% of survey respondents have experienced changes in third-party tuition payments. About half (51%) said employers are now less willing to pay 100% of tuition – they described caps, allowances instead of direct payments, and payments only for older students. Many said companies have changed to “local contracts,” often without the paid schooling benefit.


What do these changes mean for international school enrolment? Faced with more choice and limited educational expense accounts, prospective international school families today are considering value and affordability in a way they have not had to in the past. Again, admission professionals must hone their value proposition and marketing techniques.


Beyond that, Misty Shipley of United Nations International School of Hanoi describes a need to shift from a narrow admission focus to a broader enrolment management lens: “If we are only monitoring a consistent application flow and not paying attention to the shifts in the job market for expats or customer satisfaction once students are admitted, we can miss warning signs for future dips in enrolment numbers,” she explains. “This is where the concept of enrolment management becomes critical for a school.”

Shipley’s comments also touch on retention; the flip side of the enrolment coin. More than half of survey respondents reported at least some increase in voluntary student attrition, yet most schools (86%) have no formal retention committee. While admission plays a key role in retention, there also has to be top-down, school-wide buy-in to make retention a priority.


Challenge #3: A student profile in flux

One of the most striking shifts in the international school industry is in the applicant pool. 41% of respondents cited more host country applicants, 36% cited fewer expat families, and 28% noted more regional expat families.


How does the changing profile of the applicant pool change the work of admission directors? Beyond having to shift marketing efforts and broaden outreach, for some admission offices, this shift will mean an additional focus on cultural education and acclimation.


Challenge #4: High-impact local policies and global politics

About 20% of respondents said they are required to comply with restrictions, such as the percentage of host-country nationals they can enrol. For admission directors, following these rules, while also generating admission interest, adds another layer of complexity.

Beyond a local government’s actions or oversight, admission directors must contend with geopolitical changes. Consider, for example, the enrolment impact of the rise of nationalistic sentiment in several regions, the exodus of expatriate families from countries such as China and the UAE, and the final Brexit decision concerning the UK’s departure from the European Union.


How can school leaders prepare for changes like these? International school leaders should attempt to stay ahead of changes in local government action as well as how global politics could impact their region. Looping admission professionals into such discussion will allow them to better forecast enrolment and address areas of vulnerability. Regional school collaborations can also help schools stay informed.


Challenge #5: Changing professional expectations

Beyond the layers of complexity already mentioned, any admission professional today must keep up with increased expectations for customer service and personalisation. Further, the rise of the ‘stealth applicant’ (the student or family who conducts all school research online and only self-identifies at the time of application) has changed how admission offices communicate and track their funnel metrics. In addition, advances in technology bring both opportunities (such as new ways to segment messaging, track data, and connect with prospective students) and challenges (compliance with data protection and privacy laws).


How do these changes impact the work of the admission professional? “The admissions director is becoming a strategic leader in schools,” says Misty Shipley. “They are now part of the financial discussions, they are expected to analyse data, present to parent groups, liaise with relocation companies, be involved in content and brand marketing, and know the school landscape and competition in their respective cities.” She continues: “As the competition increases, schools who don’t involve the admissions and marketing people in strategic conversations are making less informed decisions regarding the future of the school.” For admission professionals to make such a shift, it will require school leaders to support them with ongoing training.


Beyond that, many international school experts feel that elevating the admissions role in leadership discussions is necessary for the future of the school itself. Liz Duffy, President of International Schools Services, believes that the role of the school admissions office today is critical to the overall health of the school. “For schools to be sustainable in dynamic environments, it helps to have an admissions leader’s perspective at the table when key decisions are being made,” she says.

Aimee Gruber is Senior Director of Global Outreach at the Enrollment Management Association Access the full International School Admissions Industry report and connect directly with Aimee on LinkedIn

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