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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1993 Issue #24 

Who Was That Masked Man?

by: Lon Woodbury 

Admissions is probably the most mis-understood position in a Special Purpose School or Program, or even in traditionally academic schools. Even though it is the source of the children that justifies the existence of the school, it is often seen by staff as the source of all their problems. One common comment, especially in Special Purpose Schools is, "What on earth were you thinking of when you enrolled that kid?" This usually contains the implication that the Admissions Director should have his/her head examined.

This tension between staff and admissions is normal, inevitable, and can easily be minimized by good staff contact and communication. The more serious misunderstandings come from the various ways a school's management looks at admissions.

There is the "salesman" view. This view is inspired by how a corporation sales force operates, and tends to tell admissions to move the required number of kids in, whatever it takes. Although admissions is partly a sales function, too much emphasis on that function by top management creates problems. It forces the admissions person to put the good of his/her career ahead of everything else and weakens the vital function of screening out inappropriate children. That can result in high-pressure sales tactics by an admissions person desperate to increase his/her statistics. That can result in disrupting a school by taking a chance and enrolling a child whose behavior makes his/her appropriateness questionable, again to get the enrollment statistics up. That can result in reduced screening on the phone which can result in dashing the hopes of a family who tend to think they have a commitment to enroll over the phone. (As a consultant, I was called by one family after they had settled with an insurance company based on the tuition of a low-cost program, and then was turned down by the program at the on-campus interview. After a few minutes talking to the father on the telephone, there was no question in my mind that the program never should have been seriously considered. Not only was the father's hopes dashed when the boy arrived on campus, but the father was then locked into an inadequate insurance settlement.)

Then there is the "ticket-taker" view. In this view, the admissions person primarily handles the paperwork (a clerical function), and maybe orients the child and parents when they arrive on campus. Although this too is an important function of admissions, narrowly defining admissions to this function creates its own problems. When a parent is making an inquiry or in the process of making an enrollment decision with the admissions person, the parent is not talking to someone who can make an on-the-spot decision. Delays creep in as the admissions person has to talk to someone who can make a decision, and enrollments can be lost, especially as the competition increases in the child care field. On the other hand, if the parent is talking to someone who can make a decision, the admissions person is being bypassed and important information and observations might not be recorded. The problem with this viewpoint is too many fingers are in the pie and it is susceptible to bureaucratic type delays and communication breakdowns.

Another viewpoint is the admissions person as "counselor." When a parent first calls a school or program, this is the kind of person the parent is looking for, someone to understand their problem and help them find a solution. They are looking for someone to trust. A successful admissions person knows the school's job of satisfying and reassuring the parent is at least as important as working with the child. A successful admissions person is able to build this trust. However, this perspective by itself might result in no kids and could easily cause a school to go broke

The final viewpoint is the admissions person as the "marketing" person. This is closely related to the "salesman" viewpoint and has some of the same pitfalls. The additional pitfall is a person with this job description tends to work in terms of numbers and institutions, and children become bodies filling beds, institutions are seen as the clients, and parents are rather incidental, at least so far as making an enrollment decision. It is susceptible to seeing children as numbers, and projecting an impersonal image, or scaring off a prospective family with an admissions over zealousness or aggressiveness that the family picks up on as "being sold". More families are "sold" by sincerity and honesty than by "hype" and high pressure.

In my view, based on nine years of admissions and consulting experience, and oriented towards the client being the parent and the child's improved behavior and self-esteem as the product, a competent Admissions Director with a sensible job description will handle all these elements listed above. Keep in mind, the purpose is to provide a valuable service by enrolling enough children to keep the school operating while screening out as early in the process as possible those children who are inappropriate. For example, the best sales technique possible is to be accepted by the parent as an honest counselor who truly understands and sympathizes with the family's problems. Or, screening a child by talking to his/her psychiatrist is a marketing opportunity also, as well as is the task of calling the professionals listed in the application.

When a residential school or program is first founded and/or is very small (under 20 students), the Director has two basic functions. One is to run the school or program itself, which is a more or less self contained community providing services to the students. The other function is to impact the outside world so as to keep enrollments coming in. Both functions interact with each other in that the services provided dictate the type of students to be enrolled, and the actual enrollments dictate the type of services to be provided. The necessary feedback is most efficiently handled when only one person is the primary decision-maker for both functions. Certain tasks can be delegated, but the Admissions Director responsibility can best be handled by the school Director.

Actual practice seems to dictate that when a school or program grows to between 20 and 40 students, the Director becomes overwhelmed with detail. Either the Director starts delegating a major responsibility, or vital functions suffer for lack of adequate attention. Usually the Director focuses his or her time on running the program and delegates much of the "outside" function.

The most common mistake made as the school or program grows ever larger is to divide up the "outside" functions into tasks, having one person handle admissions, someone else to handle marketing, someone else to handle contacts with parents of enrolled students, all reporting to the School Director and the School Director moving in and out of each of the tasks as he or she desires. This can break up a logical whole, can confuse and maybe undermine everybody, and requires inordinate time coordinating and passing information and parents back and forth. This results in delays for internal consulting, loss of important information, loss of enrollments, and parents and referring professionals getting inconsistent advice, decisions, and observations.

Parents are like anyone else, once they develop a relationship and level of trust with someone in an organization, they would prefer for that person to be their primary contact throughout their relationship with that organization. This can be one of the chief benefits of a small school or program (under 20 students). Parents and referring professionals will be primarily talking to the same person from initial inquiry to graduation. When a school is larger and is task oriented, each staff person will do their portion of the job and then pass the parent on to the next person, who needs to start all over again building a relationship and trust with the parent. Personality differences dictate that sometimes the transfer doesn't "catch," with the risk of student withdrawal based on a parent's loss of trust - a result of poor organization rather than poor service.

So far as admissions is concerned, the ideal solution would be to focus on the parent's needs, and develop a process that requires an absolute minimum of parent transfers. To me this means the person with the "outside" responsibilities, if not the school Director, would be the school or program Director's chief assistant. He or she would have to have the complete confidence of the Director, both of them working very closely with each other and sharing school decision making, with the Assistant handling the day to day aspects of "outside" functions. Then, his or her office should be so constructed that that person and his/her staff gets the information necessary to allow him/her to follow the parent from initial inquiry through graduation, bringing additional staff in as needed to serve the parents.

This is process oriented instead of task oriented, can elevate in importance servicing the needs of the parent (as client), can firm up the strength of the enrollment (by building trust instead of trying to transfer it), can reduce bureaucratic breakdown, delays and loss of information, and enhance the school or programs' reputation for having its act together.

The business world is rapidly reorganizing itself to take advantage of the changed environment we live in due to late 20th century expectations and sophisticated technology. The businesses which seem to be surviving best are those that are totally rethinking how they do business, and how they organize themselves to better serve a more demanding customer. Although Special Purpose Schools and Programs deal in education which is a timeless function, we still have to work in an environment which contains a more demanding and sophisticated cliental that expects us to meet children's and parent's needs in a quick, responsive, and professional manner.

A couple of months ago a program told me they had a conversion rate of inquiries to enrollments of 17%, down from the 35% of a few years ago. The reduced conversion rate might be due to the proliferation of programs and increased competition in the last few years. But, since they have a form of "ticket-taker" type of admissions, it might also suggest competitors are picking off their enrollments while this staff is talking to each other trying to make a decision.

For more background insight on how businesses are rethinking their way of doing business, read REENGINEERING THE CORPORATION by Michael Hammer & James Champy, New York: Harper Collins publishers: 1993. Although schools are not mentioned, the ideas contained here could be applied to Special Purpose Schools and Programs as well as to all other schools.

Copyright 1993, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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