How accurate is our enrollment data? What factors affect the precision of the information that enrollment directors share with various school stakeholders?
It is important, first, to clarify the terms admissions and enrollment. Admissions can be defined as the process before being admitted into the school, the process of submitting the necessary documents and information to be able to make the admissibility decision and subsequently “enroll” the student. Enrollment is what takes place after the student is admitted. This involves, for example, creating a student email account, adding the new student to relevant school databases, generating timetables, confirming that tuition fees were paid, and inviting a new family for their orientation session.
There are many factors that affect the accuracy of enrollment data:
What data are we collecting and why?
- Enrollment per grade level/division:
For planning purposes, the senior leadership team needs to know how many class sections are needed per grade level based on maximum class capacity.
- Number of prospective students:
These numbers are needed to effectively plan for staff recruitment, class splits, and class sizes to determine the provisional total enrollment.
- Number of paying students versus non-fee-paying students:
This information is necessary for senior leadership, business managers, and the Board to forecast revenue the school can count on. This will be used as the point of reference for budgeting and staffing purposes.
- Student nationalities and languages:
This is used for schools to stay truly international and to know how diverse their student body is and, if needed, to keep track of diversity thresholds. Also, it is important for the planning of school events that celebrate the diversity of the student body such as Mother Tongue Week or an International Festival.
- Tuition fee paid by families versus embassies/companies:
To better understand the clientele and continue to market the school strategically locally and internationally, it is important to collect this data. This helps the school to identify embassies/companies with a high number of enrolled (and prospective families) and to build and maintain relationships with key organizations.
- Student support services:
It is important for the admissions offices to closely communicate with the school leadership/student support services department to make sure admissions decisions are made according to the school mission and vision statements for inclusion. It is important to have the learning support staff available with the right expertise to meet the needs of our diverse learners.
- Parent nationalities and languages:
Understanding this data helps ensure all nationalities and languages are represented for school events and functions that celebrate the school's diversity. This can also help the school to connect new families with their fellow nationals, which can especially be helpful if there is a language barrier. A General Data Protection Regulation approved list can also be handed over to the school parent teacher organization (PTO) to pair new and current families who speak the same language or are of the same nationality to help them with their transition to a new country.
For whom do we prepare enrollment overviews?
Depending on the country location of the school and its accreditation, most of the admissions offices will present the data for the:
- Head of school/director
- Senior leadership team (SLT)
- The school board or the school owner
- Office of Overseas Schools
- Embassies (i.e., the US Embassy)
- Regional associations
- Accreditation boards
“What is your enrollment?” A simple question, a complicated answer:
There are many different ways to look at the “(opening) enrollment number” depending on who the audience is and what time of the school year this question is asked.
David Willows and Suzette Parlevliet (from the Yellow Car initiative) said, "The first law of enrollment management is the law of fluctuation." It can also be frustrating to find that one school counts “opening enrollment” differently from the next. Some schools might look at the number of students registered for the first school day. However, as we know from the nature of international schools and the many late changes that take place with our international families, this data may lead to inaccurate conclusions. This unreliable data then doesn’t reflect the reality of what is actually happening, what the numbers say are the amount of students in class versus the amount actually sitting in their chairs. For these reasons, David and Suzette set a clear definition for “opening enrollment” as the number of students attending school on 15 September.
Factors that affect the accuracy of enrollment data:
There are many different factors that can affect the reliability of the enrollment data. In the table below we have listed a few factors relevant to our schools and the reasons why it is not always easy to provide the accurate data different audiences might desire.
School management system (SMS)
- There is not one perfect SMS in schools. Whatever combination of portals or databases a school purchases, it will have some systemic advantages and some disadvantages. There is no one magic system that links everything, the admissions, finance, school report card generating systems, nurses, information technology departments and their database.
- For the databases that they do link, they don’t always communicate with each other both ways. Sometimes the data is transferred only in one direction. Hence, if someone makes a change in one system, it might not be reflected in the other. Then manual transfer of information gives space for omitting one database and can give us unreliable data.
- Late re-enrollment decisions.
- Families confirming re-enrollment and then actually not returning as family circumstances change.
- Uncertainty and delays with contract renewals for parents.
- Date of running the re-enrollment exercise (data is usually collected between February and April).
- Requesting a seat-reservation deposit to be paid prior to being re-enrolled. Also, the amount of the fee will help companies/families to make better informed and responsible re-enrollment decisions (as some schools do not require any reservation fee at all, while other schools require as much 1,000 United States dollars).
- Families who begin the application process as little as a day before wanting to enroll and attend classes.
- This makes it especially difficult if classes are at their maximum capacity (and the family has more than one child) and they naturally expect to be admitted.
Political and economic situations and the stability of the host country
- Political stability may affect enrollment, whether parents relocate to a country with or without their families.
- Closer to election time, depending on the political situation, more families working for non-government organizations may relocate to the country.
- Donor agencies and government foreign aid projects may come to economically vulnerable countries and employees relocate with their families.
Data collection (and human error)
- Caused by human errors whilst transferring data from paper files or between systems.
- Errors when filtering and sorting data.
- Parents misunderstanding the admissions process and the school’s internal jargon.
Communication from families/companies/embassies
- Families with no international post experience might not see the need to start the admissions application early.
- Depending on the prior educational system experience, this may affect the way admissions information is provided or is readily available.
- Company/embassy school key contacts (i.e., the school assigned liaisons, human resource directors, relocation experts, etc.) change often causing disruptions in the connection between them and the school’s admissions office.
Internal communication with our colleagues
- Recommendation letters: new staff members might not be aware of school policies on giving references without the admissions offices being informed (not passing on important information that a student might be leaving).
- Based on the culture of the host country, some families might want to choose not to notify the school of their intention to leave until they are absolutely sure they have been accepted to their new school.
- Parents not informing the school about their withdrawal until the actual last school day.
Other factors (like COVID-19)
- During COVID-19, many families returned to their home countries where schools were open physically (while some schools were still only offering online learning).
- Families with younger students (especially lower elementary school age) opted to withdraw as students could not work online independently.
Enrollment management role
As international schools around the world tend to have similar clientele, it is important to stay connected on a global level. Enrollment trends that affect one part of the world may affect another. It’s helpful to attend conferences like the recent 2022 Association for International Schools in Africa (AISA) conference in Johannesburg, South Africa to learn about what other schools are using, share and develop best practices, make connections, and stay in touch with other like-minded educators and leaders.
(From left to right) Langa and Jitka presenting at the AISA conference. (Photo source: Dr. Jitka Stiles)
One can never fully know everything in the admissions and enrollment management areas. There is no secret formula that was applicable three years ago that is still applicable today. This field is progressing quickly and as it develops, it is important to master the art of staying up to date with global development that may affect data collection trends.
Dr. Jitka Stiles is the head of advancement at Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana. She has worked in the field of education for over 20 years.
Langa Ndiweni is the admissions and advancement coordinator at Harare International School in Harare, Zimbabwe. She has worked in the field of admissions for three years.