15. Understanding Attrition & Improving Retention at Your School with Jill Goodman
Do you want to better understand attrition at your school? In this informative episode, Jill discusses how independent schools can take a holistic and insightful approach to improve retention with leadership mentoring, qualitative research, brand assessments, and identifying stumbling blocks to help a school best serve its constituency. She also shares a few key takeaways for retention, especially for schools that had an increase in enrollment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
About Jill Goodman:
Jill Goodman is a consultant specializing in helping independent schools better understand student attrition and improve retention. She also conducts brand-related qualitative research and leadership mentoring for independent schools. Jill helps schools harness the combination of smart methodology, creativity, and compelling messaging that is essential to stand out from the competition.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins
A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry, by Andy Marino
Tara: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Tara Claeys,
Aubrey: and I’m Audrey Bursch. Today, we’re joined by Jill Goodman. Jill is a consultant specializing in helping independent schools better understand student attrition and improve retention. She also conducts brand-related qualitative research and leadership mentoring for independent schools.
Jill helps schools harness the combination of smart methodology, creativity, and compelling messaging that is essential to stand out from the competition. Welcome, Jill!
Jill: Hi, thank you. I’m pleased to be here. This is super exciting to be here with you on your podcast. I love it.
Tara: We’re excited to have you thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself besides what Aubrey just described?
Jill: Sure I’d be happy to. I’ve been involved with independent schools for over 20 years starting with my very first experience as a volunteer, a parent volunteer, and a volunteer leader. And from there I’ve had many roles at schools as a fundraiser, a trustee, a staff member, and an administrator.
But I really love the role that I have right now as a consultant. And in that role, I can think about strategy behind things like enrollment, retention, brand, leadership, and development with school leaders, and work with them on solutions to things that really can become existential problems or issues.
Aubrey: Yeah, that’s such an important thing to be able to do. I think now more than ever, I mean, so many schools are still wondering if the school can last beyond, you know, maybe they saw an enrollment boost or something like that, but can it last or will they see attrition?
And I think the services you offer give schools the tools they need to make really insightful decisions and educated decisions, right? Because you provide that information that goes along with it. So, I’d like to dive into how you help schools improve and grow from the standpoint of how you interact with current and prospective families. I’d love to learn more. I know you sort of have a process where you speak to families one at a time, but could you tell us more about your approach to research?
Jill: Sure. So one of the ways that I help schools and work with them is through qualitative research, as you mentioned, and depending on the need of the school, I might suggest to a school leader that we do an attrition study, where I interview parents who have decided to pull their child out of that school before graduation.
Or we might decide on one of two or both conversion studies. And in that case, I would speak with parents who either inquired but didn’t apply, or their child was accepted, but they didn’t enroll in the school. And so in all of those cases, I’m talking to families that are not part of the community at all.
And sometimes that can feel a little one-sided or a little negative in some ways for a school. So I do like to recommend and counterbalance that with something I call a positivity study and that’s a focus group series with the current constituencies of the school to find out the best, the most compelling aspects of the school.
Those are the ones that really drive word of mouth and feelings of connectedness to the school community, which is vitally important. And then from there we can take all that information and work on a variety of things that come up for the school that surface, and it could be marketing, messaging, it could be internal communications, word of mouth, and it could also be leadership mentoring.
Tara: It’s such a brilliant way that you balance that. I mean, I think just, just the hairs on the back of my neck, when you talk about talking to people who have left or have decided not to join just not, you know, taking it personally when somebody doesn’t hire me, I want to know why, but I also kind of don’t want to know why. Right? So for schools to actually endeavor to learn that, and we’ve talked to other researchers about this as well, is it is a very difficult and yet such an important thing to do, but what’s brilliant about your approach is that you’re balancing it also by talking to the families who are already there and who love it.
And so I think that must kind of soften the blow a little bit. Show you where your focus should be. And we spoke to an influencer recently and she talked about the role that those happy families play as cheerleaders for the school. So when you get all of this information and you balance it out, do you kind of find something in the middle or are you helping schools try to attract people who left or are you trying to help them attract more people who are like the families that are happy?
Jill: I think that really depends. It depends what their goals are and what’s really happening. You always want to attract more of what’s working really well at your school, unless there’s a huge strategic issue. You find out that you really are, are not attracting, you want to attract more of a different kind of student.
You know, I talked with a school recently that had a reputation for really just being a school for athletics and they didn’t want that reputation. They wanted to highlight their academic program, which they were very proud of and felt that really made a difference in kids’ lives. So we needed to think about how to craft that marketing and craft that strategy and think about the pieces of the academic program that were, that, that were very compelling for students and families and, and highlight that more. So it could be either way.
Aubrey: That’s so interesting. So it’s, you’re listening to school about what they think they should highlight. Right. And then you’re listening to the parents to see what the parents actually think the school does and the compelling reason that they’re there. Right.
Jill: If I’m doing focus groups, I’m talking to everyone. So I’m talking to students and hearing it from their perspective. And I’m talking with faculty, which often has a really different perspective and administration and board and alumni. So we’re bringing all of those pieces together to try to figure out the reality of what’s happening. And then do we, do we want that reality?
Aubrey: That’s so interesting. I mean, the conversations you must have, because it’s almost like the puzzle, right? It’s a puzzle. It’s figuring out these different pieces. And then what does the end puzzle picture look like? It could look very different from what the administration initially thought, really? This is the direction we should go. Maybe, maybe it changed a bit, right?
Jill: Yeah. Definitely.
Tara: What do you find are the biggest challenges that the school administrators have in implementing some of these strategies or discoveries that you make. And is there anything that gets overlooked in that process that they don’t want to see?
Jill: I mean, it could be very different for every school. They’re always looking overlooking something, which is why they’ve hired me. They’re just not sure what they’re overlooking. And so that’s what I’m there for to figure out where the blind spots are, what we’re not seeing what could be better where, where we’re losing people in the process.
Tara: Is it a challenge to deliver that message to them?
Jill: It can be. I mean, it’s usually not incredibly difficult for them to hear it because they’ve hired me. They know that something needs to change and or, or they just want to be ahead of something. For example, I had several schools talk to me about attrition studies because in this past year they had had trouble with attrition, not, not the pandemic year, but the one before, the several years before, and now that they had an influx of students, they wanted to make sure that they could keep them. Now that they have this, this amazing windfall of new students, they wanted to be really clear about things that might have been going wrong in the past. And they didn’t want to continue to make those mistakes. Now that they have these wonderful new families join their committee. So that was particularly insightful of those leaders.
Aubrey: I would say, I’m thinking I’m like, that’s brilliant because so many schools are seeing that influx of students. And then they’re almost dreading what will Spring 2022 look like? Right. Will we lose students? You know, how do we make sure that we keep them? So they’re being proactive right now. And that’s amazing. I love that. And I think what you also mentioned ties back to a conversation we had before with someone about being mindful about how people are receiving the data.
So if they come approach you and they’re mindfully putting themselves in the zone that we might be receiving information that perhaps, you know, is not going to have the most pleasant, you know, not be the most pleasant information to receive it, especially if it’s not, you know, something, they were expecting.
That helps them then take action, right? Because they’ve kind of mindfully prepared for receiving the news and then taking action on the news. Have you found that to be true? Like the people who prepare themselves for that and are more likely to take action? Or how do you see schools taking action after you’ve delivered the news?
Jill: I think it varies. You know, it really depends how motivated that leader is to make those changes. Some of the considerations that I offer up might sit on a shelf and some of them be referred to often and be part of an entire plan with the administrative team and the faculty and the board to make some of those changes.
So sometimes it’s the impetus for the change they know they want to make but need more data behind it to make those changes.
Tara: Yeah, and it’s, it’s a combination of sort of administrative, structural, cultural change, but also that all of that can get put into a marketing strategy. We talk about marketing on this podcast. So if you can’t market something that’s not true or you shouldn’t. So, if you are marketing, if you are selling yourself as an athletic-focused school but you are learning that that’s not what you want to be doing, or that’s not what your enrolled families are looking for. Then you have to change not just your marketing strategy, but what’s behind it.
Jill: Your program. That’s absolutely true program and program delivery. Sometimes there’s cultural issues going on at the school that are getting in the way of the learning things that you don’t imagine have such a big impact on students and faculty and parents.
So, you know, just really interesting things come up that are, that are surprising and fascinating in every single school. Sometimes it’s different in regions, which is particularly interesting. Parents in different regions of the country sometimes collectively have different ideas about different things that affect how the school is making good on their brand promises.
Aubrey: It seems like you have very curious nature. Right? I feel like you’re asking the why, why this is happening, and then it takes a certain personality to, to just be curious. Right? And I can definitely see that in you just knowing you. So, I’m curious, what are the keys do you think to retaining students for independent schools? And do you think it’s going to be different than before, before COVID, you know, that 2018-19 period we saw before everything kind of hit the wall?
Jill: Well, I’ve been talking about retention strategy, I would say, for the last three years or so long, long before COVID and the same things that parents and families wanted from a school before COVID are largely the same things that they want, and, you know, they’re certainly relying on the school’s brand promises, but they’re largely the same.
And so I’ve put that, that approach to retention in a construct that I call the six components of parent retention and each of those components really speak to the things that frankly, all parents want from their school, but particularly so if they’re paying tuition for it and the components are really the ways that parents feel connected to the school and the ways that their decisions to choose a school are continually reinforced.
So I would say that the key takeaway for schools is to whether it’s COVID or, or not is to concentrate on continually reinforcing families’ excellent decision to have chosen the school that, that they’re in. And there’s a number of ways to go about that, and because of this big influx that they might have seen at their school, and some schools didn’t have that influx, which, which is another concern too, that we’re working on, but if you did, if a school leader did have a huge influx this past year and also for coming up in the fall it’s a great time to spend some intentional time and energy getting feedback from those new families. It’s an excellent opportunity to kind of reframe or revise the retention strategy that you have at the school.
Tara: Yeah. So a lot of these things, as we’ve kind of talked about a few different ways here is that some of this information that you’re bringing to light might not be a surprise, but it also might not be easy, right. It might not be easy to make some of these changes. And I’m wondering, you know, in situations where administrators or teams maybe struggled to be productive or to implement some of the things they need to, you know, what do you advise people who are finding challenges in that work environment?
Jill: Well, I do leadership mentoring, and that is awfully insightful for you to bring that up. And I often work with heads of school and advancement leaders, which are admissions directors, development directors, communications directors, and I’ll work with them either individually or as an entire team.
Sometimes I have clients where I’m working with the entire team to sort of try to break through some of the silos and have them work as a unified advancement team. And we work on all sorts of things that could be stumbling blocks either as being simply seen as a leader, which can be really one of the, one of the main challenges for certain leaders. Sometimes it’s issues of communication style or in ideation and you know, it can be lonely at the top. And some leaders, heads of school have a good relationship with their board chair and some it’s a, it’s a struggle. Sometimes what’s really needed is an objective sounding board and a guide as they work through the way forward on some of these really difficult or challenging issues. And this year, of course has been particularly challenging.
Tara: Yeah, I love the holistic approach there. Right. That it’s not just one piece and that teams have to work together and, and be willing to adapt and understand each other and in order to be successful in everything.
We love to kind of think about things like that holistically, when we talk to guests on the show. We’ve talked to all different kinds of people, and it’s really nice to hear that that part of your process is guiding people also in leadership to implement from the things that you’re learning.
So thanks for sharing that.
Aubrey: Yeah. And I also think that’s super important because not every situation and working in an independent school and I’ve worked at several is, is perfect. Right? You’re gonna have, the teams that don’t cooperate or there’s a change in leadership, or there’s all these different pieces and for you to be there to be that sounding board, but also to help them kind of navigate how do we move from point A to point B and get the job done and, and do it in a manner that is productive for all. I think that’s super important because there are so many different personalities. There are so many different things that happen in an independent school and it can be a pretty stressful place with the multiple hats people are wearing. So I’m glad that you offer that holistic piece to schools, it’s very important. I am heading us into the questions we always ask our guests. So I would like to kick it off by asking you, what are the most important things you do to grow personally and professionally?
Jill: Well, I’m part of a mastermind group and I truly love my mastermind group.
Tara: True confession, first here, full disclosure. We are in a mastermind group.
Jill: We’re part of the mastermind group, which is a collective of women consultants in the DC area. And in that group, I, I learn, I grow, I contribute and I feel really supported. So that’s a wonderful piece of professional development. I also have a coach that helps me with the business side of my business of being a consultant. I read a lot on a number of topics because I find inspiration in tangential businesses and thought leaders, as well as in the educational space, I listen to a lot of podcasts. You can go on my website to read my blogs. There’s a couple of there called “podcasts I love” but two of the ones that I do really love are Hidden Brain and Freakonomics are ones that I listened to often and often get inspiration from, I like networking, meeting people, both in the educational space and outside of it because you just, you learn the more people you talk to, the more you learn about different perspectives, about how people think about things and what can be useful in different spaces in different times.
Tara: That’s a great list. Yeah. Lots of great things there. I’m going to ask you the next question, which is what is one of the most important things we can do to be more mindful?
Jill: Well, I’m going to ask you guys a question about this here, because I really want to parse out the difference between mindful and insightful. And I have kind of a trouble with the distinction. So what do you guys think?
Tara: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I actually, when I’ve talked to some people about this podcast, some of them have said that mindfulness is overused, right.
That it’s kind of something that’s thrown around and not used thoughtfully or mindfully. And I think for me, mindfulness is taking a top- down, look at the way things are and stopping and pausing and thinking about it rather than rushing into it. So I think it’s different from insightful in that insightful, I think is kind of going deep. And I think mindful is kind of more an overview.
Aubrey: And I would like to add. I think everyone has a different interpretation of what mindful means. And it’s been very interesting to see as we’ve been going through the podcast, what it means to different people, because it’s a word.
And even in the definition, you could apply it so many different ways. So, you know, I think just thinking about what it means to you and I would go from there because I think it just is so personal. Like when I think mindful, I think, being meditative, really being thoughtful and strategic in the way that I’m helping my clients, not rushing into things, taking a step back, those sorts of things, but I’d love to hear what, what it means for you.
Jill: Yeah, in that case, since we’ve framed this I would say for me, mindfulness is making sure that I schedule enough time to reflect and think about what my clients need, the results of the data that I find to either confer with other people. I try to walk every day. I used to listen to podcasts when I walked, but I realized I needed to have more space.
So now I listen to very like spa sort of music while I’m walking so that I can let my mind wander about different things, which is really helpful. So, making sure that my days are scheduled in a way that I have time for that sort of thing.
Aubrey: That’s brilliant. I love that. And I too was a walker with podcasts and then I felt like, oh, why is my brain always kind of frantically running? I was like, oh, because it needs space. Right. Needs that quiet time. That’s funny to find someone else who felt the same way.
Okay. So I would like to transition us to our rapid fire questions.
These are super fun questions that we can include in all our podcasts interviews. I’m going to kick us off. Are you ready? Okay. Okay. If you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be?
Jill: So I’m pretty clear that I’m not an educator and I do not feel qualified to suggest high school reading.
However, that said, I would like to suggest an entire curricula surrounding financial literacy. So kids and families often are not clear about the huge impact issues like financial aid for college and how that works and what long-term debt really means to a kid and a family, how to start a business, how to manage a budget, how to read a contract, how to talk to a lawyer, how to talk to an accountant, how to negotiate.
So I would, I would like to see that in every high school curricula.
Aubrey: I second that, I would love to. I think that was my answer when Tara and I were talking, but I didn’t say it as nicely as you did. Yes. The whole curriculum. Yes. And I second that, because those are the life skills I want my kids to have.
Right. They’re six and nine and good golly. I mean, with like student loan debt, all that stuff piling up. I want them to have their eyes open going into the world and knowing those things. Right?
Jill: And in some cases they don’t have parents who understand those things either they can go to college and they find themselves in a, just a ton of slaying debt and it actually affects our independent school prospective families.
They’re trying to figure out how to pay their own student debt while they pay their child’s tuition. So it, it has reaching effects and in many ways that is not ideal.
Tara: Yeah. It’s very complicated. I’m a mentor to high school students. And even for me, it’s hard to wrap my head around all the scholarships and the financial aid and the different types of loans.
I mean, it is a lot for anybody. So for a student to be able to understand that and learn it would be great. So great suggestion. Thank you.
Next rapid fire question. What is one app you could not live without?
Jill: Well, I’m not as tech savvy as you guys are but the one app that I do use and really I would have trouble living without is Grammarly.
Aubrey: That’s a good one. Now I’m going to ask you, and I’m very curious to see your answer. What are you reading right now?
Jill: Okay. I read a lot of things and I read them all at the same time. So I am rereading Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. And I’m also rereading, Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss.
I’m have just started reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and sort of contrasting that with a biography of Varian Fry called A Quiet American. And on my list are a couple of books by Deborah Tannen, who is a linguist and researcher researches how miscommunications happen. And what we can do to better understand each other which is infinitely helpful I’m sure.
Tara: That’s a lot of books to be reading at once.
Aubrey: I love it. You have my mind because I have them all at once too, because I’m never sure what mood I’m going to be in. I mean, sometimes you want to jump into this. I’m going to put all those books on. Tara is starting us a nice book list. So yes, we’ll have those
Tara: lists. We will, we’ll put them in the notes and I also just started American dirt as well. And that you’re the second person in like a week to, to recommend the negotiating book.
Aubrey: Yeah, I read that and I saw him on the masterclass because I got masterclass as a Christmas present. Oh, I read it was very intriguing.
Tara: All right. Well, here we are. The last question, you ready?
Tara: What’s one great piece of advice that you’d like to leave us with Jill?
Jill: Oh my goodness. I don’t know about great advice, but I would say that everything you do should really be open for consideration.
I mean, if you’ve been doing something for a long time in a certain way whether it’s really working for you or not I like to kind of take a hard look at it at the objectives or the goals of that program or initiative is if it’s a work-related thing or a way that your system of how you’re doing things.
And then think about the results of that over time. And is this still working for you? Or do you sometimes feel like you’re totally swimming in molasses? And if, if you, do you feel like you’re swimming in molasses, so then take that feeling and think about that and, and think about how can you dig a little deeper and possibly something could be better.
Aubrey: That was such a good one. I like that. And I’m wondering, do you do this at different parts of your life? Do you also, like, is this part of your routine of like, I feel like I need to put that on my even like, just with morning routines, I’m thinking like what’s working. What’s not, it’s just everything’s open to reconsider. It doesn’t have to go on as it always has, especially if it’s not working anymore.
Jill: Yeah. The swimming in molasses metaphor I like, and I use a lot because that’s sometimes how I feel and that’s a big red flag for me. Yeah.
Tara: That’s great advice.
Thank you so much for sharing it. We are out of time, sadly, but I think we’ve covered a lot of great ground and we’re so grateful that you that you shared your time and your thoughts and expertise with us. Where can people find you online, Jill?
Jill: They can go to my website at jillgoodmanconsulting.com.
You can also find me on LinkedIn and you can find me on Instagram.
Aubrey: Yay. Thank you so much, Jill. This has been so much fun.
Jill: Thank you. Thanks for having me. This is wonderful. Thanks.