From the title of this article, you may think it strange as to why enrollment and retention are separated as two different processes.  Frankly, when I tell schools that these are two different processes, they look at me like I have three heads. What most people do is lump enrollment of new students together with retention of old students and call it all “enrollment.”

However, increasing “enrollment” involves two different strategies. So let’s “look underneath the hood,” as my friends in the car business used to say, to see beneath the surface and discover the underlying reasons.  Doing so will help us come to an understanding of the differences.

Enrollment, as defined on, is the action of enrolling new students in your school.  You may call it “Admissions” at your school, but the process is the same.

Marketing is tied to enrollment since marketing piques the interest of the parent of the prospective student, prompting them to visit the school’s Web site, make the phone call to the school to schedule a visit, and then step inside the door.  Only then does the “enrollment” process begin.  To make the comparison to the business world, Marketing is “education,” while Enrollment is “sales.”

Retention is not a function of marketing, although it’s a measuring stick. Retention is a function of “experience.” In other words, what type of “experience” is the child having at school? What type of “experience” are the parents having in their interactions with teachers, administration, and other parents? Does the “experience” prove the marketing?  Do we, as schools, “walk the talk?”

Will parents “pay” for an experience which engages and energizes them? ABSOLUTELY! School administrators cringe when they hear that parents can’t pay for tuition, yet will pay for the family vacation, the cruise, or the big game tickets (and being a Pittsburgh native, let me tell you – we understand our sports teams).  Parents today are “all about ‘The Experience.'”

If you lead a Catholic school, as Catholic Schools Week approaches (which will be the topic of next week’s article), think about the experience your current students and parents are enjoying at your school.  If you lead a Christian school or a school that espouses another faith tradition, or a private school that carries on the traditions of its founder or founders, think about the experience you are offering to your school’s parent community – not simply the children.  If they’re “thrilled” (which is a very important word) about the experience, their “Word of Mouth Marketing” will be more valuable than any ad campaign you can imagine. And you get a double-bonus…you not only retain them in your school, but they become ambassadors for your school’s marketing efforts, and you don’t have to spend money on a marketing campaign that may be significantly less effective than the recommendation of raving fans of your school.

If current students and parents are not enjoying the experience of being educated at your school, that may be the origin of enrollment issues your school may be experiencing.

How do you know if parents are having an exemplary experience? Ask them! Just two questions: First, on a scale of 1 to 10, what is your satisfaction with your experience here at (NAME OF SCHOOL). Second, if the answer is not 10, what one thing needs to happen to make it a 10?

Shared experience is an excellent, if not harsh, teacher.

I can hear the naysayers already…”That’s not the point! People come to our school because of our faith tradition – not because of the experience they’re having.” You know what?  Your statement may be spot on – they come to your school because of it…but why do they STAY with your school?  Do they feel that they’re a part of your school’s community? Or are their children there for an education, one that may not be reinforced at home?  Actually, since parents are the primary teachers of their children, the school’s role is truly a supportive one.

If that’s difficult to comprehend, recall that every faith tradition has aspects that are difficult to comprehend…yet faith believes them to be true.  The key role retention plays in your school’s growth is no different.

Ask yourself and your staff: “Do we have a tightly knit community of families in the school that support one another when one loses their job, has a medical hardship, or finds themselves in experiencing difficult times?  If the answer is “No,” you don’t have some homework to do – you have LOTS of homework to do. As most homework requires some type of reference to a text, please allow me to suggest one – my book, “Retention: A Systems Approach to Growing Enrollment.” Check it out by visiting this link.  It’s been updated with special attention paid to Millennial parents – because Millennial parents expect special attention.  It’s helped a number of schools to stabilize their current enrollment and focus on attracting new families to keep growing!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2024