After reading the title of this article, you may be thinking, “What’s a cohort?”
According to Wikipedia, “In statistics and demography, a cohort is a group of subjects who have shared a particular event together during a particular time span.” It’s an appropriate definition to describe a “class” of students, such as “The class of ’78.” But it’s also a way to describe the parents of those students.
When we think about enrollment, we usually think about the total number of students in the school. Whenever someone says, “We want to increase enrollment in our school,” the comment is usually met with anything from head nodding to thunderous applause. School administrators, teachers, and parents all believe that increasing enrollment is a good thing…and it is. Whenever the comment is made, I always think of the line from the Kenny Chesney song, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven:” Everybody wanna go to heaven, but nobody wanna go now.
So even though school administrators and parents “want” enrollment to increase, many aren’t ready to do the work that needs to be done to make it happen. It means more projects will be put on someone’s plate, and because there’s so much to do already, enrollment in the school continues to decrease.
Further, many school councils and administrators take a “macro view” of enrollment. They’re very happy when they graduate 14 students from their 8th grade, and have 24 students registered to start Kindergarten. Do the math, and that results in an increase of 10, right? Unfortunately, no. Usually, it results in a net loss of 2. The problem is that the figures aren’t analyzed deeply in the remaining grade levels of the school.
One of my supervisors once told me, “Don’t over-analyze.” That’s great advice when trying to make a decision between buying a used car or leasing a new one, but when you’re dealing with data, you must analyze as much as you can to find out why figures act the way they do, and then apply human consideration so discover the background regarding the actions of the data. It’s one of the things I discovered when working with school finances. Even in today’s world of ubiquitous technology, some schools still send invoices to parents and then hope they pay tuition every month, or use a company that penalizes parents because their policies aren’t congruent with the way parents think today. When I tell school leaders that their practices are causing enrollment declines, they say, “That’s ridiculous. People know what they’re getting into when they commit to enrolling their students.” Unfortunately, no one has a crystal ball to see what’s on the horizon…but if data is collected, there’s data to analyze. Not only is there data to analyze, but there must be some action that’s taken based on the data. Data analysis for the sake of mere explanation can still lead to a school’s closure.
So where did the loss of students in the above example come from? The math resulting in an 11 student increase would work if the enrollment in every grade in between the entry and exit grade remained the same from year to year. Providing these calculations is a complex process, and there can be a substantial cost for doing so. Research involving cohorts – that is, the number of students in a grade level in a school – was conducted back in 1981, and found that estimates could be offered by analyzing the previous five years of “cohort drop.” For schools, it answers a fundamental question: “How did the 8th grade class get to 14, when there were 28 students in that ‘cohort’s’ kindergarten class?”
Here’s the reason why that’s a very difficult question to answer – nobody tracks it. Why? Administrators change. There’s too many other things to do. We don’t have an Admissions director. The list goes on. And, when administrators change, there’s usually no overlap opportunity for training to continue the work. The original intent of the “two-week notice” was to give the payroll department the opportunity to properly pay the employee for the time they worked without upsetting their processes. This, of course, was before payroll was computerized. Then, if a replacement was found, they new employee could be trained by the exiting employee. However, in today’s workplace, that means having two people occupy the same position, which skews the budget, and many times, business hold positions open for as long as they can to save money, and eventually, that position could be eliminated or reconfigured if there’s no one waiting in the wings to step into that role. Of course, if the position is indeed filled, there could be either an adjustment period, or a time where many things change all at once because of the new approaches and ideas the new employee brings to the organization.
If an administrator has been in place at a school for many years, I would lay odds that enrollment questions usually are focused on a horizontal cohort rather than on a progressive one. The basis lies in another familiar conversation heard in planning meetings for schools: “We had 18 students in 3rd grade last year, and this year we will have 16 students in 3rd grade.” Adjustments are then made according to how many students will need supplies, books, and perhaps even technology devices for each grade level. The underlying factor that’s “understood” but never brought to light is the fact that there might have been 19 students in the 2nd grade that are moving to 3rd grade, which will have 16 students in the following year. You might think, “That’s only 3 students,” but multiply the effect through 8 grades in your school. That’s a loss of 24 students. Now we’re getting into some figures that are dangerous to your school’s survival. It’s a trend you cannot allow to continue unchecked…unless your goal is to close the school.
When separating enrollment (bringing new students into your school) from retention (retaining students in your school), enrollment becomes focused on the “entry-level grade” of your school. That’s why admissions directors in high school start speaking to families of students in 5th and 6th grade. It’s why administrators in elementary schools need to start speaking to parents as soon as their children are born and baptized if they’re looking to enroll them in a faith-based school’s PreK program!
While I have found no empirical research about this phenomenon, the pattern seems to be that the typical faith-based school will have 50% of the number of students in 8th grade than were present in that cohort’s kindergarten classroom. For instance, there were 96 students (48 students in each class of 2 classrooms) in my first grade class in the fall of 1966 (before Catholic schools had kindergarten programs). When we graduated from 8th grade in 1974, there were 52 students, with 26 in each classroom. If we could extrapolate back a year, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume there would have been 104 students in my kindergarten “cohort.”
And that was back in the 60’s and 70’s, where there were still religious men and women who were teaching in the schools. Our Catholic school could see the next closest Catholic school across the way from us, and there were two other Catholic schools within a 3 miles radius. All four of those parishes no longer have Catholic schools, and a few years ago, the parishes were combined into one parish. More recently, two more parishes were added to the merger, and one of the two had a Catholic school associated with it. Interestingly, when the enrollment projections for the school were conveyed to the parishioners, it showed what I had mentioned above – that students cohorts would remain the same as the years progressed. In other words, this year’s 10 3rd graders would ALL go to the 4th grade the following year, and ALL 10 would be enrolled in 5th grade the year after that. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened – and everyone was saddened when that school closed, and they wondered how could the enrollment drop so quickly.
Using today’s example of 24 students entering kindergarten, when that cohort reaches the 8th grade, there will only be 12 students in the class 9 years later. It’s interesting to note that the speech heard by incoming college freshmen at orientation has the same theme: “Look at the person sitting next to you. In four years, odds are that only one of you will graduate from here,” since the cohort drop percentage in higher education is 50% in four years.
If you track those “cohorts” along a progressive diagonal, you can then do some predictive calculations to determine how many students will remain in the school the following school year. SchoolAdvancement’s “BASIQS” tools can help you do that (check the “Enrollment” navigation tab on the home page). Since these estimators are free, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t search for your school’s grade-by-grade enrollment data over the past 6 years, and enter those figures into the spreadsheet to discover how the “cohort-drop” method of enrollment calculation estimates your next year’s school enrollment…unless you’re afraid to face realistic facts. Please note: If your school has merged in the past 6 years, the numbers will be significantly skewed. The research done on the tool was based on the assumption that each year is similar to those before it and after it. While our pandemic may have had a profound effect on enrollment numbers, causing some schools to close while other schools increased enrollment, The Enrollment Estimator (TM) will allow you to input an overall enrollment goal, and will return a figure that shows how many students you need to enroll in Kindergarten to meet it!
You may ask, “But that means that there’s nothing we can do about maintaining the enrollment in grades 1 through 8.” That’s because that process is called “retention,” and not enrollment. My book on retention describes ways to you can increase retention as the first step to building your enrollment.
Let’s pause for a moment. Since you’re in the PK-12 space, you may be thinking that “retention” refers to keeping a student in the same grade from one year to the next. It’s more commonly called “repeating” a grade. But for universities and colleges, student retention refers to keeping students engaged with the educational environment so they’ll remain a student through the years of their studies. While some institutions of higher learning used to pride themselves on the fact that half of the freshman class would be gone by the time senior year rolled around, they’ve come to the realization that a loss of enrollment means a loss of potential graduates which translated to a loss of potential alumni, and therefore, donors, to the school! It would do the PK-12 world a world of good to realize that’s exactly what’s happening in your market vertical, so the term “retention” certainly applies.
Here’s something you can do that is both remarkable and differentiating, and will help to solidify your overall enrollment. Usually, when cohorts are discussed, as this article has done, it talks about the members of the grade level. Most schools also have a parent-teacher organization, where all the parents of the school meet and support fundraising efforts, discuss changes in school policies and hear about topics of special importance, like safety, technology security, and anti-bullying initiatives. But if you’re going to build cohorts, the parents of students in a particular grade level need to support each other in a special way. Perhaps it’s getting together for a potluck dinner at a parent’s home every month…just to get together to know and support one another on their journey through your school. In faith-based schools, families can pray for one another, and perhaps share burdens, since burdens shared are burdens lightened. Why would a parent want to leave your school for another educational program where this type of support is non-existent?
How do you start such a program? That’s an easy first step. Bow your head, and ask the One who gives your faith-based school its purpose. If you have an administrative team meeting, ask everyone there to do the same. If there are two or three of you gathered there, I’m sure you know who else is there in your midst.
© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2013-2022