How Prospective Parents Research and Choose Schools

This post is a continuation of one I wrote in March 2016, called Why parents choose private schools (implications on school marketing). In that post, I looked at the research behind why parents opt for a specific school (in that case, private) Now, this post is geared towards researching how parent research and select schools for their children. In other words, what are the tools and methods used by parents to select the proper school for their children?

Information influences parents

When presented with information about a school, parents tend to change their decision making to reflect what they have learned. A study of 1700 parents from the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University showed that there was a statistically significant effect from the information, as parents enrolled their children in higher achieving schools compared to other parents [1]. It should be noted that most schools have a plethora of information to share with prospective parents, but do they share it the right way? Schools should have a strong web presence with enough information on it for parents to make a complete decision when looking at the site. Schools should not skimp on fully fleshed-out printed materials as well. 

How do parents use online tools?

According to an October 2013 Great Schools Annual Brand Survey, parents were asked why they were researching schools online. The answers were as follows: 52% were looking online for school's ranking and reputation while the rest were looking for information for a school switch. This piece of information is important since content online should be controlled carefully, especially relating to the school's reputation. [2]

What do parents look for when researching schools ?

This question is the heart of the matter since criteria can vary according to parent population, but another Great School Survey shows that parents evaluate school quality by looking at a number of points:

  • teacher quality (76%) : Do the schools have quality teachers? This can be reflected in the teacher's credentials and expertise.
  • curriculum and academics (68%) : Does the school have a robust curriculum? Does the curriculum align with the parent's values? 
  • school safety (58%) : Is the school safe for their child(ren)? Does the school have communication procedures/safety procedures in place?
  • other criteria : test scores (43%), academic growth rates (36%), distance from their home (29%), extracurricular activities/opinion of other parents (27%), principal leadership (24%). [3]

This information is crucial since this is what parents are looking for. Schools should focus their strategic objectives towards these criteria, and help parents in making the decision to send their children to their school a lot easier.

Are online rankings important to parents? What else do they look for?

Online rankings are important to parents insofar as they are weeding out low-performing schools. This was the conclusion of a 2013 study of 1000 parents from the Center for Educational Policy Analysis at Stanford University. This is important for schools to know, since schools should prominently feature their current and past successes on platforms where there is an interaction with parents, such as the school's website, the local newspaper, social media outlets, and even broadcast TV. This study also indicated that parents focus on ideas like achievement and gains. In other words, they are looking for the answer to the question : "What will sending my child bring to him/her, and my family", in other words, what intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual gains will be obtained with an investment in time and social/economic capital in this school. 

Americans' trust in educational options

Another survey, this time from YouGov (2013), called "How Americans AssessSchool Quality" shows that there is a "statistically significant" trust gap between state schools and non-profit run schools. Americans hold considerable more trust in independently run schools, compared to their public counterparts. This "trust gap" was found regardless of gender, race, and educational attainment. Some of the results show that 18% of responders do not trust public schools "at all", compared to 7% for private non-profit schools. 


Prospective parents will research schools based on their reputation, students' educational achievement, and may use online tools to do this. This is lead by a distrust in state schools and a desire to see "gains" in their children. The criterion looked for the most include teacher quality, academics and safety, and a more informed perspective parent body will choose higher quality schools. Schools need to use this information to make better-informed decisions in their recruitment efforts. [4]


[1] The Effects of Providing Information and Support to Middle School-Choosing Families, 2010 - 2012 , Center for Education Policy Analysis, Stanford University

[2] GreatSchools Annual Brand Tracking Survey, Oct 2013

[3] GreatSchools Annual Customer Satisfaction Survey, Jan - Feb 2013 

[4] Great Schools : How parents research and choose schools. Parents attitudes and behaviors when choosing a school, 2013

[5] YouGov Survey on How Americans Assess School Quality, June - July 2013, Center for Education Policy Analysis, Stanford University

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