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Five Reasons Why Your School’s Value Proposition is King

The impetus behind this post is important to understand, perhaps more so than any of the other prior posts. We have discussed enrollment management, strategic planning, the role of the admissions director, being more data driven – but this post on value proposition is probably the most direct approach to turning prospective families into actual applications. It cuts to the chase and allows you to begin an evaluation of your message and learn why you need to communicate it clearly.

Each school’s identity is made up of several things: mission statement, history of the school, teaching philosophy, to name a few. These are essential elements that help make up a community of learners. They do not make up the value proposition; that stands by itself. A value proposition is a statement that speaks directly to the value of a school’s program. It highlights a school’s core values; it differentiates your school from its competition, and it identifies the benefit of enrollment. And they come in all shapes and sizes. But they are usually one paragraph, two at the most and are never labeled as “A Value Proposition” but they live on one of the main pages of the website close to the mission.

Here is why the value proposition is so important for schools in the 21st century.

Some independent schools in our country were founded in the 1700’s. Many are over 100 years, 150 years, 200 years old. They have rich traditions and a school culture that spans back many years. Marketing is not one of those traditions. Rather, it is a new journey and one school’s do not do very well.

All schools have their rituals, routines and ruts. Rituals are never to be changed, like a graduation ceremony or the passing of the senior rings to juniors. Routines are more like dress codes or schedules: they change every so often to better reflect the times or new philosophy. Ruts are things that schools have done for so long and don’t even know they are doing them or that they don’t work, but they continue doing them anyway because that is the way it has always been done. Marketing in schools is a rut. For hundreds of years schools did not need to market their strengths. Family’s came every year and the applications followed. Seats were filled. Very little effort needed to be exerted to fill the seats. Times have changed and we now need to be more direct as ever, purposely working towards a full school. And it’s not easy. Schools cannot simply rest on their laurels anymore.

The top five reasons why your school’s Value Proposition is king:

  1. Current State of Our Economy

We saw a tremendous downturn in our economy in 2008 and our enrollments suffered because families were scared to spend their money. After a recent, slight recovery, we are seeing that families are willing to spend their money again. The difference this time is that “value” is of the utmost importance. Millennials are value shoppers where they must be entirely convinced that they will get their money’s worth. Schools can communicate this through their value proposition.

  1. Competition From Other Schools

The competition from others schools is tougher than ever. With more school options like other private schools with similar missions, Charter Schools, Religious Schools and the free, public choice down the road, parents have many schools from which to choose. Your School’s Value Proposition will differentiate your school from the competition.

  1. Tuition Driven Budgets

The majority of independent schools are at least 80% tuition driven, which means every tuition dollar counts. For schools to deliver the program they market, they need to meet the budget. They need to train and pay those fabulous faculty members, have the latest technology, and support the infrastructure that every school must have. Your School’s Value Proposition will help solidify applications and turn them into active families.

  1. Communication Has Changed

Our attention span has decreased dramatically over the years. Prospective parents read in sound bytes, which means schools have very little time to get their point across. And if prospective students are reviewing the website, you have even fewer moments because they don’t stick around long and want to be entertained. Videos that communicate your value proposition are very effective.

  1. Families Are Value Driven

They can afford to be picky now because it is a buyer’s market. Schools are competing for students. Our current, competitive culture has made our prospective families even more results driven. They want value in everything and they want to see results immediately. Your School’s Value Proposition can exhibit those results.








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Guiding Families Through the Wait-Pool Process

Guiding Families through The Wait-Pool Process Tips for Independent Secondary School Admission Teams

In early March, tens of thousands of applicants to independent secondary schools will check their mailboxes or go online to see the long-anticipated decision notification from their dream school. Many youngsters will take a deep breath, open it….and find that they have been placed in the wait-pool. The disappointment will sink in, and the questions will arise as the candidates and/or their parents begin to make their calls or send their emails to the Admission Office: “What exactly does this mean?” “How many students are in the wait pool?” “What are my chances for acceptance now?” “Is the wait pool ranked in some way?” Here are a few tips on managing the message and easing applicant and parent stress during this difficult time.

  • Keep in mind before placing a candidate in the wait-pool that the compassionate decision may actually be a “Deny.” A wait-pool decision by nature is an invitation to an ongoing and potentially frustrating relationship.
  • Anticipate candidate and parent questions. Consider stating in the letter/notification that the wait-pool is not ranked and that Admission will not be able to predict the chances of ultimate acceptance.
  • You can reduce the volume of phone calls and emails from wait pool candidates or their parents by letting them know that Admission will contact wait-pool candidates on a case by case basis should spaces become available.  And you might consider adding that, in any case, wait-list movement is not likely until the point (early May?) that the school has a clear picture of its enrollment from acceptances.
  • Be gentle but firm in not allowing wait pool candidates or their parents to push you for a detailed explanation of why they were placed in the wait-pool or how you are shaping your school community with acceptances from that pool. You will compromise the confidential elements of your admission process, and you may create false hopes that another admission test, a second interview or parent conference, improved grades, or additional recommendations will be the formula for an ultimate acceptance.
  • The wait-pool is a critically important enrollment management tool, and it is truly where “art” meets “science” for the Admission team; our independent schools all have their particular needs, yield issues, and timelines, and each wait-pool candidate is unique. But by anticipating candidate and parent concerns and kindly but firmly communicating your process regarding the wait-pool, you will help ease some of their stress—and much of your own as well! 

Fred McGaughan is a 30-year independent school admission and marketing professional. He currently works for Gowan Group, an educational consulting firm that specializes in Strategic Enrollment Management. Learn more about Gowan Group at or email Fred at



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Admission: Four Tips on Increasing Yield for Acceptances

Admission: Plan Now to Increase your Yield on Acceptances

March decisions are right around the corner, and Admission Directors can take a few steps right now to ensure the highest possible enrollment yield from acceptances.

  1. Involve your school’s program directors. Everyone has a stake in the yield success for acceptances. Whether it’s the Academic Dean or the Music Director, the Debate Coach or the Soccer Coach—all program directors can help the yield cause at large and impact their programs. Plan an early February meeting of all program directors—before end of term madness takes hold and March break arrives– to discuss strategies for getting them in touch with accepted students (and/or parents) who have expressed a strong interest in specific programs.
  2. Plan or refine your accepted student special events now. Whether it is a full-day visitation program for accepted students or an evening reception for the kids and their parents, you don’t want to wait until mid-February to create or refine these plans. Successful schools enlist an all-star cast of teachers and administrators, as well as current students and parents, to assist in these critically important events. They need to plan. So do applicants and their parents who need to save a date should they be accepted. Send out an e-blast to your applicants about special events and follow up visit programs for accepted students, and get the info on your website well before admission notifications are sent.
  3. Use your admission software to anticipate and (later) track likelihood of yield for an acceptance. Sure, in many cases you just won’t have a strong sense of whether a candidate will enroll after an acceptance, but your best guess on likelihood for yield is better than no guess as you enter admission committee meetings. And you will find that tracking the real data after acceptances and comparing it to your intuition will help inform your committee discussions and yield efforts in the future.
  4. Consider adding to your acceptance letters alerts for school events or news, and include a link for these to your website. You may have your winter musical right at acceptance time, an end of season playoff game, an art exhibition, or a special speaker at your school. Perhaps you are at the point where you can announce an exciting program that will launch in the coming year. These are all terrific opportunities to get soon-to-be accepted candidates and families back to campus or at least to keep them thinking about you without any “sales” pressure.

Creating or refining a yield plan for your acceptances at least six weeks before decisions are mailed will ease stress, involve the entire school team, and keep applicant families informed and excited until they sign that contract and send in the deposit!

Fred McGaughan is a 30-year independent school admission and marketing professional. He is Managing Director for Gowan Group, an educational consulting firm that specializes in Strategic Enrollment Management.


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Three Tips on Managing Parents’ Responses to Admission “Deny” Decisions

For those of us in the secondary school admission world, March means decision letters, and of course with it comes the inevitable–sometimes emotional– responses from parents regarding “Deny” letters. These conversations can be difficult, especially when we are dealing with the parents of an enrolled sibling or any family with whom we have developed a strong bond during the admission process. Here are some tips on how to navigate the tough ones:

  1. For deny decisions for a sibling, consider making a phone call to the candidate’s parents in advance of your letter mailings or electronic notifications. While these conversations can naturally be a bit awkward, the parents will respect you for it and appreciate your personal touch. You are letting them know that they are family.
  2. For all candidates and their parents, do not allow them to press you for specific details regarding an admission deny decision. There are simply too many moving parts to an admission committee decision, and pointing to one or two specific reasons for the denial will compromise the confidential aspects of your committee’s work. A firm statement (delivered with a soft touch) such as, “It was a difficult decision, but we had a very competitive pool of applicants this year” is the best way to go.
  3. You will often be pressed by parents to prescribe ways that their child’s application in the future will result in an acceptance. Don’t go there. While you understandably want to soften the blow after a deny decision, there are too many moving parts and unknowns in the coming year, and you will be inferring to the parents that a few improvements will in fact increase chances for this child’s future acceptance.

I’m reminded of a difficult Deny decision in my early years as an Admission Director: The parent pressed for the reason, and I wanted to be helpful. I agreed that the student’s testing was in line with our averages, his report card was quite good, and his interview was strong. The parent immediately went to the child’s teachers and bullied them about their “weak teacher recommendations”! In sum, Admission Directors and staffs should always be warm and caring, but when it comes to Deny decisions, it is far better to avoid specific reasons because you want to bring closure to the situation and protect the integrity and highly confidential nature of admission decisions. Parents have an agenda–to push as hard as possible for their child. Your agenda in Admission is to be firm-yet-kind in advancing your school with mission-appropriate acceptances that will define the school’s culture and support its programs.

Fred McGaughan is a 30-year independent school admission and marketing professional. He is the Managing Director of Gowan Group, an educational consulting firm that specializes in Strategic Enrollment Management.


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Approach Branding like it’s a 500- Word Theme

Fred McGaughan, Gowan Group


As an English major and former teacher, now a branding professional, I’m struck by the similarities between savvy strategic branding and positioning and the old 500-word theme. In middle school, high school, or college, you may have found expository writing to be a chore, but love it or hate it, the 500-word theme remains a wonderful model for strategic thinking. And the application of that disciplined approach to writing holds some uncanny similarities to your branding.

Think about it: In sophomore year, you had just read The Great Gatsby, and you had a 500-word theme due in one week. A daunting proposition for any student, right? But your English teacher had spent most of the first marking period stressing that a step-by-step strategy would lead you to a. Do some close re-reading b. Brainstorm with impunity to get all your ideas down on paper c. Organize your thoughts to look for trends and “Ah-Hah!” topics d. Decide on a thesis statement that is important, compelling, and original e. Stick to that message with two or three topic sentences and f. Support each topic sentence with two or three supporting statements or quotations. Voila! Now you had a message of interest for your reader, an outline–a path to follow as you polished up your phrasing, sought your “grabber” opening line, and developed a conclusion. With this disciplined approach, in a short two and one half pages you had something clear, original, intriguing, and memorable to say.

It’s easy to see the similarities between this disciplined approach to theme writing and your branding and marketing. There are so many moving parts and so many things to say, but you don’t want to move forward without a. Conducting research to test your assumptions of who you are and what you do best (close reading) b. Gathering leadership and key stakeholders to hold candid, free-ranging discussions about current and emerging issues (brainstorming) c. Analyzing the plethora of information (organizing and looking for trends) d. Creating important, original, and sticky mission and vision statements (thesis) e. Affirming those statements with at least two or three of your signature program elements (topic sentences) and f. Drilling down with specific examples that irrefutably buttress your claims (supporting evidence).

Huzzah! By taking this disciplined approach to your branding, you and your “reading” audience now have a much better understanding of your brand. You’ll still need that “grabber” (tag line) and a compelling conclusion (delivery on your promises), but your teacher (Board Chair, President, Head) just might just upgrade you from a C+ to an A by the end of the term (praise and raise).

To learn more about Fred, our Managing Director, please visit our site at

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Adding Context to Data

Here is another excellent post from John Pryor. John offers his insight on how to analyze data and add context to make data more relevant. Gowan Group has recently been discussing this topic here on our own blog. While flawed in its research, the NYT article does reference some reputable independent schools that offer solid advice from their college guidance offices.

Below is John Pryor’s most recent post:

Too Many Applications? Think Again

“Do we have a problem with too many high school seniors applying to too many colleges?

That’s what the New York Times thinks.  A front-page article on Sunday (November 15, 2014) about college admissions (Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Betsclaims that a lot of high school seniors these days are applying to “more colleges than anyone would have previously thought possible.”  The sidebar proclaims that there is “a perfect storm of ambition, neuroses and fear among high school students.” Yikes!

Well, there must be pretty good data behind this, right?  It was on the front page of the New York Times, after all.

To shore up this claim, the reporter cites two high school seniors, one who applied to 29 colleges, and another who applied to 18. Two cases. An N of two.

OK, that’s the human interest side (we have names, a back story, and in one case, a picture of a young woman on her laptop, presumably writing application number 29).  What else? A high school staff member tells a story of one person who applied to 56 schools.  Naviance (a company that, among other things, has a web-based program that helps high school students with the application process) says that 1 student in the US has 60 colleges they are thinking about applying to.

So far I am not really impressed. Two interviews with students and two examples of hearsay.

Finally we get some actual data based on more than a few conversations.  The reporter tells us that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has a survey that says that in 1990 nine percent of college freshmen had applied to seven or more colleges, and by 2011 (which the reporter tells us is the most recent data), this had risen to 29%.  Now we’ve got some data.

Only it’s not quite right, as this is not a NACAC survey, it’s the CIRP Freshman Survey, which NACAC clearly credits on their website as the source. It looked very familiar to me, since I directed the CIRP Freshman Survey for eight years, and provided the information to NACAC at the time.  We would typically have around 200,000 students represented in the CIRP Freshman Survey database each year (note to reporters, that is not a “2,” it’s “200,000”).

While the source is wrong, the numbers cited are correct.

Even though the reporter did not actually use the most recent data or the most relevant data.  Figures for the class entering in fall of 2013 (not 2011) have been released, and the percentage of four-year college first-year students who applied to seven or more schools rose to 31.6.

But wait, seven schools isn’t what this is about. It’s about 18, or 56, or maybe even 60 if that student using Naviance applies to all the ones being considered.  The CIRP data doesn’t tell us about such high numbers because we topped out the available responses by asking about 12 or more applications. And that’s at 5.9% of the college freshman for 2013.

So make a reasonable guess about how many of those are sending 18, or 56, or even 60 applications.  It’s not very many, is it?  And that same database tells us that the median number of applications per student is still just, well, four. Which seems pretty reasonable.

Why is this on the front page of the New York Times?  The headline was “Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Bets.”  And while the article does have quotes from guidance counselors that explain that this is not a good strategy, that wasn’t the headline, was it? Why not have a headline of “A Very Small Number of Anxious Seniors are Sending in Too Many College Applications in a Practice that May Actually Hurt Their Chances of Admission”? The message in the headline is that some seniors are hedging their bets by applying to a lot of colleges. Who doesn’t want to hedge a bet?  That’s good.

But this article is not good. It’s playing on the fears of already anxious students (and as a father with a high school junior, it’s scary to their families too). I expect better from the New York Times.

So, don’t worry that we have hordes of students applying to 59 (or 60!) colleges. Worry how to pay for college these days. That’s the scary part.”

Visit John Pryor’s blog at Pryor Education Insights.


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