Amid Sagging Enrollment, High Schools Turn to Self-Promotion

Sep 10, 2013

What's driving the heated competition for new high school students in Milwaukee?

How are schools marketing themselves to prospective students?
Credit Bill McChesney/Flickr

Parents of high-school age kids might be used to the physical mail and the email from colleges and universities, courting prospective students.

But recently, a new phenomenon has cropped up in which younger kids – and their parents – are being courted to enroll in the high school of their choice. School choice and an increasingly competitive high school marketplace are driving schools to pour more money and effort into marketing.

"If you keep the enrollment up, it's easier to maintain the programs and easier to maintain the salaries for the teachers," says reporter Larry Sussman, quoting a Catholic superintendent. "They deserve a decent salary."

Sussman examined several high schools' attempts to lure new students in a recent article. He found that schools are struggling to grow amid tight economic times and increasing competition.

While faculty sizes could be cut and the school downsized, like any organization, the idea is not to shrink, but to grow. Sussman says education facilities want to move forward their unique teaching styles and focused topics (i.g. religion in the case of Catholic schools) because of the importance it plays to them. Every schools has a slant to offer they feel isn't met elsewhere.

Sussman says public school enrollment has dropped by five percent and private schools by 17 percent since 2000. This corresponds to a drop in funds, meaning teachers, curriculum and general upkeep often have to be cut. Chicago was forced to close dozens of public schools last year, and more schools around the country have done the same in the wake of the economic downturn.

But how does a school attract potential students?

"I saw a number of yard signs advertising open houses last fall," Sussman says. "There's a strong effort to get kids into these schools to show them what their about."

Nicolet High School tries to use a more word-of-mouth technique, inviting kids in on the first day of school on a red carpet.

Sussman says, "It's about showing them how wanted they are."

Writer Larry Sussman’s article on high school marketing is in the September issue of Milwaukee Magazine.