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The Re-Enrollment Contract – To Do, or Not To Do

Recently a colleague sent me a note asking what I thought of the concept of continuous re-enrollment for their independent school. The concept seems pretty basic and is one used almost exclusively by higher education institutions. Once a family enrolls and signs the initial enrollment contract, the assumption is that the student will continue with the school from year to year until graduation (at whatever grade level). There is then no need to go through the enrollment contract process annually for each student (each family). The burden is placed on the family to inform the school only if the student is NOT returning.

Sounds great; sounds easy – then why do most independent schools go through the process (along with a bit of anxiety and brain damage) each year? I have heard this question arise a number of times in recent years, but had never explored it in depth. I reached out to some trusted colleagues and asked their opinions, which I will attempt to summarize. There is not a clear consensus about the value or acceptability of this proposed process.

My initial reaction and question is, “What does a school really gain?” I understand the challenge with the logistics of successfully getting a large number of families to return the contracts in a timely manner. However, the advent of online processes makes this much more efficient than in the past. I believe that the hope the school administration has with continuous re-enrollment – that they will have more accurate, timely information on enrollment – may not be completely true. Families will continue to behave in a manner that best suits their needs. They may not “opt out” in a timely manner, but wait until a time when they determine they are ready to inform the school.

Debra Wilson, General Counsel, NAIS responded to my inquiry and has a few concerns:

  • The continuous concept may lead to a more difficult situation if/when a school wishes to end the enrollment of a student. This could be for disciplinary, academic, financial, or other reasons.
  • Changing the terms of the contract (which is done on a very regular basis) means that there may be a long series of addenda as well as different versions of the contract, depending on the date a family started with a school.
  • There are some disclosures like Truth in Lending that must be updated annually.

Suzanne K. Bogdan, Regional Managing Partner, Fisher & Phillips LLP has some thoughts as well:

  • If done right, it can save the school time each year by not sending out, getting back, or dealing with the huge mess that is re-enrollment contracts.
  • There are some risks – for instance, that the parent could say that they did not understand the process, that the school wants to make a major change that the parent who signed three years ago does not agree to, etc. But as long as you anticipate these issues and have good communication it could work.
  • The theory behind it, so to speak, is that by sending a parent a re-enrollment contract each year, the parent has to make a new decision whether to enroll, read the legalese, and consider options. By not dealing with that and only dealing with the parent and the money, there is an assumption by all parties that the relationship will continue without interruption.

Finally, I reached out to our colleagues at The Enrollment Management Association (formerly SSATB) – Nicole Suozzi, Chief Member Relations Officer, posed the question to some of the staff who had served in admission offices at independent schools and received a variety of responses and mixed reactions to the idea of continuous re-enrollment. Here are some of their comments:

  • I like the idea of continuous enrollment – colleges do it. No family applies with the idea that it would be for just one year. By asking them to enroll each year we are forcing them to reconsider their purchase. As long as the initial contract gives an out for both school and family under certain circumstances, I think it’s a good idea. (Kate Auger-Campbell, Director of Outreach)
  • My opinion is that it can be a clunky process, legally fraught with pitfalls (payment arrangements, communication about policy changes, stipulations about families “opting in” to new or additional features with a program/division, etc.). However, if you view enrollment as an auto-renewing subscription (like your cable or satellite contract) it does hold merit for many of our consumers who expect education to reflect the products and services they are accustomed to purchasing. (Dave Taibl, Director of Outreach)
  • I have never been a fan of the “you’re in unless you opt out” contract. While I understand why some schools might find it comforting to count on a family’s yearly return, I believe schools need to use the re-enrollment time to re-up their value proposition. Parents these days appear to want more control and the continuous contract could be viewed as too binding, potentially even turning a family off to the school. (Carinne Barker, Senior Director of Professional Development)
  • We decided to move to a continuous enrollment contract and I was so glad that we did. The first year we rolled out the new contract there were some challenges. We had many returning families who were confused and pushed back because it was confusing. We made sure to be proactive in sending out letters (mail and email) to all of our families explaining what would be happening, when, why, etc., but some families were still confused and needed hand-holding throughout the process. We expected this to happen and our admission office and business office staff were ready to help. The next year the entire process was very smooth. All of our returning families knew to expect it and our new families, about a quarter of the total population, thought it was something we had done for years. (Christina Coffey, Director of Outreach)

The Enrollment Management Association also presented a webinar on this topic, which can be found here.

As you can see, there is no clear consensus on this subject. I suspect that in the coming years more of our schools will experiment with new methods of re-enrollment as they have with online processes in recent years. More data (knowledge for schools) will be available for each of our schools to evaluate the successes and failures that are likely to occur. As with many questions, I suggest that school leaders consider their school’s mission and their community’s unique culture carefully before making a decision like this.

If your school has discussed this topic, please leave a comment below to share your school’s thoughts and concerns so all schools can benefit from this continuing discussion.

Marc Levinson
Executive Director, MISBO
marclevinson@misbo.com

We power independent schools.™

2 Comments
  1. Thanks, Marc, for this summary of current thinking on the idea of continuous enrollment. We are talking about it as an option and your post arrived at just the right time. Do you have any sense how many independent schools around the country have actually moved to the CE model?

  2. Hi Bill – I do not have data to support my thoughts on this, but after speaking to a good number of people and schools, I believe the number is still very small. Please let me know what you decide and the factors for your decision.

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