If you think kids and families have changed a lot in the past five years, you’re right—and thanks to COVID-19, those changes are likely to be more apparent as we move forward. The past five years have been different in part because 2016 was the last year that Millennials graduated from high school, and the first year that K-12 education was completely populated by Gen Z. Enrollment management professionals watched this shift start in their applicant pools, and as these students have risen through the school, it’s visible to all educators. Even though Gen Z kids are being raised by two different generations (Generation X and older Millennials), they’ve still been parented in a similar way, and one that’s strikingly different from generations that preceded them.
Parents and guardians of Gen Z kids, whether themselves Gen X or Millenials, focus on their child as an individual. They’re cynical about institutions, and they question institutional priorities and practices. They see their child as unique, and they want to make sure the child’s setting optimizes what’s best for them. They cultivate talent, encouraging children to focus early on their strengths--and that’s because these parents and guardians believe that only the best win, and there’s not a lot of room at the top.
So when it comes to independent schools, parents and guardians of Gen Z kids have high expectations. They expect individualization, differentiation, and customization, and they have higher expectations of what schools do for families. They also believe that schools should be held accountable if they don’t meet those expectations--and they’re happy to go somewhere else if that happens. In these families, independent school enrollment is a year-to year decision.
That’s why retention is more important than ever in enrollment management. Academic leaders looking at those traits of Gen Z parenting know that these folks are more likely to pick up the phone when something’s not meeting their expectations or is headed off the rails. It’s essential to realize that every time an academic leader receives one of those calls, the interaction is also an evaluation of whether the school is able to meet a child’s needs.
At the end of my first year at One Schoolhouse, I looked at our list of consortium schools to see which relationships were strongest, and where I needed to cultivate more connections. What I found surprised me: the schools we were most connected to had usually had a low-stakes student issue at some point in the year--for example, an academic dishonesty case on a minor assignment, or a student who had chosen not to complete three weeks of work. As I thought about this, I realized that those challenges were moments when One Schoolhouse demonstrated key traits like integrity and empathy. When we managed conflict well, we proved our value.
The same is true for interactions between academic leaders and parents or guardians. Knowing that the parents of our GenZ students are less likely to tolerate bumps in the road provides academic leaders with important opportunities to shore up retention. It’s important to note this doesn’t mean capitulating to a request or acting without integrity. Instead, it’s the time to be an empathic listener, a flexible problem solver, and an ethical educator. If families feel that the problem-solving is transparent, values-focused, and well-communicated, they’re usually going to feel positive about your relationship and comfortable with the resolution, even if it’s not the one they hoped for. (And let’s be honest--if a family wants you to solve a problem with an unethical solution, they’re probably not a family you’re interested in retaining!)
The difference between a good school and a great school is invisible when everything’s going well; only the great school shines when times get tough. Those are the moments when families take the measure of a school. When academic leaders solve problems, demonstrate compassion, and communicate effectively, they turn skeptic parents into school promoters.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)