Understanding the Forces Behind School Choice

By Vanessa Shamosh posted 09-22-2021 02:31 PM

Image of path splitting in two directions. Blog title

Throughout my 15-year career in independent schools, I’ve been fascinated and intrigued by the question of how parents choose a school. On a very basic level, it is natural to attribute parents’ school choice to the perceived quality of a program vis-a-vis the cost of tuition. Yet, a closer look leads us to realize that there is much more at play. After conducting a study on school choice using the behavioral economics framework, Sean Leaver, Professor at the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at the University of Melbourne, Australia concluded that “School choice is a wicked problem.”

To understand why, we need to think about the circumstances under which school choice takes place:

  • For the most part, parents are not experts in choosing schools. They will go through the process only a handful of times.
  • In looking at different schools, they are comparing incomplete and asymmetric information – every school highlights their own strengths so parents are not comparing apples to apples.
  • There is a time constraint – a decision about which school to send children to must be made before the start of a new school year.
  • The outcome of a choice will only be known in the future, leading parents to constantly evaluate the decision they’ve made.
  • It is hard to “unmake” choices.
  • There are many “free” alternatives available to them.  

Hoping to solve their dilemma, parents prepare THE list of questions they’d like answered. What are your teachers’ certifications? What curriculum does the school use? What is the acceptance rate to the next level? How do students perform in standardized tests compared to peer schools? What is your bullying policy? Do you offer academic support? How will your program challenge my child? What kind of after school activities do you offer? Is there a gifted program? What about athletics? How long has this school been around for? What kind of facilities do you have?

Parents believe that by collecting answers from every school they visit, they somehow eliminate the lack of symmetry in the information that they are trying to compare. And we, the admission professionals, fall in the trap! We begin to see ourselves as salespeople, obsessively making sure we have the answers to all those questions. We focus on what our school has to offer, what makes it a perfect choice, making sure we do not miss a single point in our mental checklist. We - parents and admission professionals, behave as if the process is a rational one. But, is it?

Research conducted by Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrates that “human decision is a complex system, one part intuitive and one part rational. According to their findings, “The more complex the decision, the more we rely on our intuition - our gut feeling.” In other words, when we face difficult decisions, our cognitive process shuts off and emotions take over.

We can conclude that school choice is a complex process and therefore it is an irrational, intuitive and emotional decision. By the time prospective parents make it into our building, their emotions have taken over. Parents will decide with their heart and rationalize their decision with their brain, so our job is to “translate” the emotions that drive the “rational” questions that parents want answered. In the Enrollhand Blog, Theresa Eberhardt writes that one of the mistakes that schools often make is to only communicate to the thinking parent and their rational mind.

Sean Lever points out that every single emotion driving school choice falls into one of two categories: fears or aspirations. Every parent has them even if that leads to very different school choices. For example, everyone hopes that the school will help their child thrive and fears that their peer group will be a disaster. The challenge for admission professionals is helping parents identify and articulate those fears and aspirations, and then highlighting the aspects of the school that satisfy those needs. 

What parents really want to know is if your school will take a unique interest in getting to know their child. They will trust that it will happen if we, the admission professionals, take an active interest in them. Instead of jumping into speaking about your school, try conducting “exploratory interviews”, focusing on the parents' experience of the school choice process. Help prospective families discover what brought them into your building in the first place and think about how you want them to feel when they walk out. You can craft their experience if you are willing to listen carefully to their fears and aspirations.

The secret is to wrap that high quality content into engaging stories. In literature, stories are meant to elicit emotion. When it comes to school storytelling, the goal is to elicit action in the form of an application for admission. Every good story has a character and the great thing about schools is that we all have hundreds of personalities to choose from and stories to build around them. Storytelling allows us to speak to the emotions. To the fears and aspirations…. It is the parents’ job to rationalize what their hearts are telling them, it is our job to help them along the way!

Vanessa ShamoshVanessa Shamosh
Director of Admissions
Lehrman Community Day School
1 comment



10-07-2021 10:46 AM

This is a great analysis of parent choice and affirms what thinkers like Simon Sinek say about emotional decision making. Thank you for pulling together all these researchers and writers to help us improve our work!