After two years of headlines about pandemic-driven changes to the education industry, it’s clear that parents want choices. Even top traditional public school districts in the U.S. are facing competition they haven’t faced in the past as culture wars, a volatile political landscape, and a renewed interest in school choice impact family education decisions. Facing competition both from private schools and one another, leaders from charter schools and traditional public school districts need actionable data for benchmarking their budgets, staffing sizes, and family recruitment tactics, to ensure you don’t get left behind. This is also why Niche often conducts industry-wide K-12 research. With the average family comparing 3-4 schools on Niche, across categories, it’s important to use a wider lens to inform your recruitment and marketing strategies.
In addition, enrollment in K–12 schools is predicted to plateau nationally through the 2020s, and while the U.S. birth rate increased for the first time in seven years in 2021, that doesn’t compensate for the years-long decline that began in 2007. How schools and districts tell their stories and demonstrate value to prospective families is more important than ever.
The Time to Invest in Enrollment and Communications Teams is Now
The notorious “department of one” is still common, but the 19% of schools that reported increases in enrollment staff and the 23% that reported increases in marketing and communications staff give us hope that more professionals in these areas will be given opportunities to expand their teams and more effectively divide and conquer their long to-do lists. One thing to keep an eye on is retention. Twenty-eight percent of schools reported that turnover for enrollment roles had been an issue and 21% said that marketing and communications staff turnover was an issue.
In more encouraging news, 52% of respondents reported increased importance for enrollment and admissions roles and 61% reported an increase in importance for marketing and communications roles. Last year’s long days and hard work are paying off with changing perceptions of the critical importance that these roles play in supporting K-12 educational institutions.
Still, admissions and marketing/communication department sizes are strikingly similar between public and private schools, in spite of the fact that public school communications professionals, in particular, are often managing marketing, communications, and community outreach in districts with hundreds, if not thousands of students, and multiple facilities. As many traditional public schools continue to prioritize teacher and student recruitment and online public schools and charter schools continue to see increased interest from new families, public schools across categories will need to seriously consider their internal resources for supporting this work.
Schools Need to Bridge the Gap Between Family Recruitment and Retention Resources
Retention and increasing enrollment are top of mind for public schools, but steps need to be taken to ensure that there is a balance between the efforts put behind student acquisition and the efforts put behind retaining families, which can be a struggle.
The fact that improving and streamlining communications with families was identified as a high priority shows that district and charter communications professionals are aware of the critical role communications plays in family retention, and it’s a good place to start. Surveys can also be beneficial in this area and 51% of responding schools reported that they survey newly-enrolled families. The remaining 49% are missing out. Surveying new families provides an opportunity to learn about their experience with enrolling in your school or district, from navigating the process to securing accommodations for their children if needed. It also provides an opportunity to identify gaps between what they expect from your community and what they experience when they join. If retention is a priority, surveying families at different parts of their journey is critical.
Meeting Families Where They Are
As schools resume in-person opportunities to engage with families, fewer schools are offering virtual programming. However, meeting families where they are is a critical component of both recruiting and retaining students, and that means offering a range of options for families to engage with a school. Virtual events are inexpensive, efficient, and convenient for parents and caregivers who can’t always make it to campus for a coffee or meeting. They can also be beneficial to families who are relocating from another area as they research and compare schools—you can’t assume that your families are all coming from your backyard. As you think about parent engagement in the coming months, make sure decisions about changing formats are grounded in data and your current and prospective families’ needs.
Print Materials are Staying in the Marketing Mix But Digital is on Top for ROI
Among traditional marketing tactics, print materials, in particular, are experiencing a bit of a resurgence and that’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as it’s targeted, personalized, relevant, and features clear messaging about a school or district’s value proposition. “Come visit!” or “Become a fill-in-the-blank mascot” are not effective calls to action for prospective families receiving direct mail out of context. Schools and districts will also need to keep generational and cultural preferences top of mind in their outreach strategies.
When asked about the impact of their digital marketing efforts, digital was the clear front runner compared to traditional marketing—2% of schools said that digital marketing was less effective than last year, 45% said it was about the same, and 53% said it was more effective. On the flip side, 50% reported that the effectiveness of their traditional marketing tactics was about the same compared to last year, 7% said it was less effective and 43% said it was more effective.
As Digital Adoption Grows, Watch for Budgets and Optimization
As digital marketing adoption increases among public schools, districts will need to pay attention to how charter schools (and private schools) are investing in these channels. Despite the relatively small sample size for public schools, this survey indicates a spending gap that will need to be reduced in order for public school districts to avoid getting left behind their K-12 counterparts in other categories.
Ongoing optimization and training are also critical. As a start, schools and districts will need to make sure that they switch to Google Analytics 4 ASAP to avoid unnecessary delays and issues with reporting.
Finally, it’s challenging to set the budget for a new academic year and evaluate the effectiveness of current campaigns if you aren’t reviewing your current budget regularly. While reviewing budgets for traditional marketing tactics like printed materials can be a slower and less frequent process, measuring the effectiveness of digital marketing tactics requires constant vigilance, and 43% of respondents to this survey are not reviewing the budgets for their digital campaigns frequently enough (no, annually is not enough). If you aren’t able to manage that in-house, consider outsourcing it to an agency or reaching out to Niche’s Digitial Marketing Services team for support.
Methodology and Respondent Profile
There were 646 individual, complete responses collected between August 17, 2022, and September 6, 2022, 120 of which were from public school districts, online public schools, and charter schools. The survey was distributed via email to all PK-12 school contacts in the Niche database and additional participants were recruited through digital advertising. Fifty percent of respondents were from traditional public school districts, 45% were from charter schools, and 5% were from online public schools.
The majority of respondents (39%) reported a total enrollment of 601-2,500 students with 28% reporting enrollment of fewer than 600 students. Larger schools and districts, with an enrollment of 10,000 students or more, accounted for 8% of responses.
School enrollment breakdown:
Less than 600 – 28%
601-2,500 – 39%
2,501-5,000 – 15%
5,001-7,500 – 3%
7,501-10,000 – 6%
More than 10,000 – 8%
Most of the responding schools and districts were located in suburban (39%) and urban (23%) environments; 22% were located in towns, and 17% were located in rural settings. Thirty-three percent of respondents were located in the West, 29% were in the South, 21% were in the Midwest, and 13% were in the Northeast. Four percent did not provide a specific location.
While the enrollment function can be a bit different in public schools compared to private schools, we wanted to maintain as much consistency as possible between surveys, so we asked public and charter schools about the number of employees allocated to enrollment. Thirty-four percent of respondents reported having one full-time employee (FTE) employee and 26% reported having zero. Thirty-eight percent of respondents reported having one FTE dedicated to marketing and communications, while 44% reported having none.
Similar to last year’s survey, school size did not have an impact on enrollment and marketing FTE numbers—schools and districts with 10,000 students or more were equally likely as schools and districts with fewer than 600 enrolled students to have one full-time employee dedicated to enrollment or marketing communications or none at all.
Forty-two percent of respondents reported having no part-time employees dedicated to enrollment. Twenty-one percent reported having one, 19% reported having two, 5% reported having three, 4% reported having four, and 9% reported having five or more. When we looked at the breakdown of part-time enrollment employees by school type, charter schools were more likely than other school types to have part-time enrollment staff, with 15% reporting having one part-time employee, 8% reporting having two, 4% reporting having five or more, 3% reporting having three, and 2% reporting having four. Traditional public schools and districts were most likely to have no part-time employees for enrollment at 25%.
Fifty-five percent of respondents reported having no part-time marketing and communications staff. Twenty-seven percent reported having one part-time marketing and communications employee, 13% reported having two, 3% reported having three, 2% reported having four, and less than 1% reported having five or more. Charter schools (25%) and traditional public schools (29%) were the most likely to have no part-time marketing and communications employees. Traditional public schools (13%) and Charter schools (12%) were also the most likely to report having one part-time marketing and communications employee. Seven percent of charter schools, 4% of traditional public schools, and 2% of online public schools reported having two part-time marketing and communications employees. Only traditional public schools reported a larger number of part-time marketing and communications staff with 3% reporting having three and 2% reporting having four.
Similar to last year, we wanted to find out about headcount changes in school enrollment and communications offices, and an additional question was added to gauge the impact of staff turnover in PK-12 schools. Seventy-five percent of responding schools reported that enrollment staffing had remained about the same, 19% reported increases in staff, and 3% reported decreases in staff. Charter schools (11%) were most likely to report staffing increases, which is no surprise given the significant enrollment gains seen by charter schools during the past two years. Seventy-two percent of schools reported that turnover for enrollment roles had not been an issue, while 22% reported it was a small issue and 6% reported it was a significant issue. Charter schools (14%) were most likely to report that enrollment staff turnover was a small issue.
Seventy-five percent of respondents also shared that headcounts for marketing and communications roles had remained about the same, 23% reported increases in staff, and 2% reported decreases. Traditional public schools (16%) were the most likely to report increases. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said that marketing and communications staff turnover was not an issue, 14% said it was a small issue, and 7% said it was a significant issue.
Another addition to this year’s survey was a question about how the perception of enrollment and marketing communications roles changed over the past year as marketing communications professionals in particular navigated a range of challenges in 2021-22, from student and teacher recruitment to managing constituent communications regarding Covid protocols and curriculum. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that enrollment and admissions-related roles increased in importance, 46% said there had been no change and 2% said the roles had decreased in importance. Charter schools (30%) were the most likely to report an increase in importance.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said that the role of marketing and communications professionals had increased in importance, 37% reported no change, and 2% reported a decrease in importance. Traditional public schools (30%) were the most likely to report an increase in the importance of marketing and communications roles.
Headlines about significant increases in enrollment for charter schools and declines in public school districts dominated the news in the last year, but the results of this survey paint a more balanced picture. Forty-three percent of respondents reported that enrollment in their schools and districts was about the same, 36% reported enrolling more students, and 21% reported enrolling fewer students. Responses were fairly consistent among school categories; however, charter schools (20%) were the most likely to report enrolling more students.
We also asked about enrollment priorities for 2022-23. Forty-five percent of respondents said that retention was a priority, 44% said increasing overall enrollment, 43% said improving/streamlining communication with families, 38% said school/district branding, 28% said customer experience, and 20% said increasing enrollment for specific demographic groups was a priority for the year.
A common narrative last year was that family recruitment would be forever changed by the Covid-19 pandemic and that schools would continue to use a hybrid approach to recruiting and engaging with families once operations returned to normalcy. Only 33% of respondents reported offering virtual tour and visit options and respondents were almost evenly split when it came to offering virtual events in general—51% do not while 49% do. Among the respondents who reported offering virtual events, 83% hosted live presentations in a virtual format, 53% offered pre-recorded virtual events, and 32% hosted live panels that participants could watch virtually.
When asked about event budgets, 39% of schools reported having no assigned budget for events related to family recruitment. Traditional public schools (20%) were the most likely to report having no assigned budget for family recruitment events.
While surveying parents and caregivers can be fairly common in the private and independent school worlds, we want to know whether traditional public school districts, online public schools, and charter schools were surveying newly-enrolled families. In 2021, we were surprised to see that only 37% of total respondents, across school categories, were surveying families after they enrolled. In 2022, 51% of respondents to the public school survey reported that they survey newly-enrolled families, 39% did not, and 10% did not know.
In this portion of the survey, we wanted to explore the tactics that schools across categories are using to recruit new students, the tactics they are planning to increase investment in, and the tactics they are planning to reduce investment in. We also wanted to compare and contrast the differences between traditional and digital marketing tactics and the budgets for each.
Once again, the majority of responding schools reported having no assigned budgets for traditional marketing. However, 14% reported having budgets of $20,000 or more. Traditional public schools (6%) were most likely to have budgets of more than $20,000 for traditional marketing and the most likely to have no assigned budget for traditional marketing, at 15%.
When asked how frequently traditional marketing budgets were reviewed and reassessed over the course of an academic year, among the respondents who chose to answer the question, 30% reported adjusting their budgets annually, 8% reported adjusting their budgets twice a year, and 8% reported never reviewing or adjusting their budgets at all.
Things get interesting when it comes to how schools have allocated marketing dollars to traditional marketing methods. In 2021, while public school districts and charter schools represented a smaller percentage of survey respondents, nearly half of schools reported that their spending on traditional marketing was about the same (within 10%), but 33% reported a decrease in spending. Only 18% of schools increased their spending on traditional marketing last year. In 2022, among public school districts, online public schools, and charter schools, 60% said that spending on traditional marketing was flat year-over-year, 8% of respondents reported decreasing spending on traditional marketing methods, and 31% reported increased spending on traditional marketing methods.
Similar to 2021, printed materials were very popular among survey respondents for student recruitment. Brochures (56%) were the most popular traditional marketing tactic for respondents, followed by direct mail (51%), and print ads in local publications (48%). Charter schools were the most likely to use all three of these tactics, with 54% using brochures, 59% using direct mail, and 25% using print ads in local publications.
Public schools across categories are remaining committed to many of their current traditional marketing tactics as we enter the 2022-23 school year—33% are planning to increase investment in community partnerships and sponsorship programs, 24% are planning to increase investment in direct mail, and 21% planning to increase investment in brochures. However, despite their current popularity, print ads in local publications (16%) and radio ads (13%) were among the top tactics respondents said they wanted to reduce marketing investment for during the 2022-23 school year.
Are these tactics working? That’s the big question. While 50% of public school districts and charter schools reported that the effectiveness of their traditional marketing tactics was about the same compared to last year, 7% said it was less effective and 43% said it was more effective.
Similar to 2021, a higher percentage of schools (32% versus 24% for traditional marketing) reported having no assigned budget for digital marketing. While 14% of schools reported having budgets of more than $20,000 for traditional marketing, that number declined slightly to 12% for digital marketing. Charter schools (7%) were most likely to have budgets of more than $20,000 for digital marketing and traditional public schools (21%) were more likely to have no assigned budget for digital marketing.
Among the schools that shared how frequently they review and update their digital marketing budgets, 30% reported reviewing their digital marketing budgets annually and 13% reported that they do not review their digital marketing budgets at all over the course of the school year. Twelve percent review their budgets twice a year, 7% reported reviewing their budgets “continuously” or multiple times a year, 6% review their budgets quarterly, and 3% review their budgets monthly.
Compared to the 31% of respondents who increased their spending on traditional marketing tactics in the last year, more than half increased their spending on digital marketing during the past year. Only 2% of schools reported decreasing spending on digital marketing, compared to the 8% who reported decreasing spending on traditional marketing.
Paid social media advertising and email marketing were tied at 41% as the most popular forms of digital marketing used to recruit new students, which is consistent with the 2021 survey. Organic search (SEO) (36%), digital display ads (35%), and school search and review sites like Niche (34%) were also very popular.
Similar to 2021, school responses regarding how they’re planning to spend their digital marketing budgets this year point to continued increased investment. Paid social media advertising was the top tactic for increased investment at 33%, followed by email marketing (28%), and leveraging school search platforms (22%). An overwhelming majority of respondents (76%) shared that they do not plan to decrease investment in any of the digital marketing channels listed in the survey.
When asked about the impact of their digital marketing efforts, digital was the clear front runner compared to traditional marketing—2% of schools said that digital marketing was less effective than last year, 45% said it was about the same, and 53% said it was more effective.