Nationally, Catholic school enrollment is in decline. According to the National Catholic Education Association, from 2007 to 2016, over 1,500 Catholic schools closed or consolidated. This trend is felt most acutely in the elementary school level where over 1,400 schools closed over that ten-year period. What is driving this trend? On a macro level, many parishes report shrinking numbers. Most parishes are stagnant or if they are growing, the growth is slow. Additionally, with the growth of charter schools, many parents have a good, free, option if they are unsatisfied with the public-school choices in their area. However, I believe one of the biggest contributing issues to this decline in Catholic school enrollment is the failure of parochial schools to actively and adequately market and promote their schools. The environment has changed and it is no longer enough to run a good school. Catholic schools must work harder to tell their story to parents and parishioners of why their local school is the best option. The first step is to increase parish enrollment!
In my work with Catholic schools around the country, I have found that one of the most critical customers, parishioners, often are not the primary target for the school’s recruiting efforts. Parishioners represent the low hanging fruit for a school and they need to be the first target for your enrollment efforts. In the schools that I have worked with, there is a wide range of parish participation in the school. From a low of 13% to a high of 77%, schools have mixed success in enrolling the available children within the parish.
So how do you go about crafting a strategic parishioner recruiting strategy? There are four key steps that you need to undertake.
Step 1: Assist the parish in improving their parishioner records
Parish data is notoriously inaccurate. The parish often lacks the capacity to routinely update their records and often is not collecting the sort of data that is going to be helpful to the school in its marketing efforts. For the parish membership information to be a valuable tool for the school’s recruiting efforts, it must be accurate and clean. There is little incentive or resources for the parish to update this so often the school must take the lead in helping to update the rolls. Many schools require students in the upper grades to perform service hours and this is an ideal project for students to man a phone bank for a few hours to update the parish data. What you want to do in this project is the following:
- Confirm if the family is still part of the parish
- Confirm the number of children in the family
- Confirm or solicit the ages of the children in the family
- Understand what schools those children currently attend if it is not the parish school
By completing this exercise, not only have you helped the parish improve its record keeping, but you have now identified your potential targets for parish recruiting.
Step 2: Understand the percentage of kids that you are currently getting from the parish (your parish enrollment metric)
You want to define your market opportunity through actual data. Many principals feel like they have a good handle on this number, but it is important to actually back this anecdotal knowledge with data. Since most schools offer a parishioner rate, you will know the percentage of kids that are associated with your home parish. But the next step is to understand what is percentage of the “available” parish kids who are not attending the school. You can do that by matching your list of students with the list of all available kids in the parish that you identified in step 1. That will get you an understanding of how many potential parish kids are available to you. This is also an excellent time to identify future students. Students who are 4 or 5 should be actively marketed to because that is your future kindergarten class.
Step 3: Understand what barriers exist to the parents enrolling their children at the school
All of your parents in the parish know that the school exists. But, some have actively made the decision to not send their children to the school. Do you know why? A client that I worked with recently told me that the main reason why parents choose not to attend the parish school was cost, even though they were the lowest tuition in the region. However, when we conducted a survey of parishioner parents who are not part of the school, we found that two-thirds of the parents who we surveyed did not know the actual cost of tuition. Many assumed it was much higher than what the school was charging. The school must communicate more actively what the actual cost of the school is. In addition, they should ensure that parents are aware of scholarship or voucher options that can help offset the cost.
Some parents, have made the decision not to attend the school because they think that the school is not of high quality. One of the telling data points for the same client, was that in the survey of parishioners who didn’t attend the school, half felt that the quality of education at the parish school was the same as the “free” public school option and that almost 25% felt it was worse! However, the school routinely was one of the highest performers in the Archdiocese. But the school had not made a concentrated effort to inform parishioners about the quality of the school. So, they had not considered it a choice for their students. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to fix through consistent communication about the school’s academics.
Many parishes have very active religious education programs. It is important for you to understand if this is a potential “substitute” for students to attend your school. While I would never say to make your religious education program worse, if parents are actively choosing to send their child to religious education and the public school, you need to ask yourself if you have done a good enough job explaining the depth of faith formation that a student will receive while attending the school instead of just using religious education to supplement their secular education.
Step 4: Actively and adequately recruit your parishioners
Actively and adequately recruiting from your home base, or engaging in parish enrollment, may seem like a basic recommendation, but many schools outside of displays at Catholic School Week, don’t actively inform parents in the parish about the school. Are priests actively mentioning the performance of the school at Mass? Is the school communicating and recruiting students who are about to enroll in kindergarten? Does the school ever have display tables set up after Mass to communicate to parishioners about the wonderful things that are happening at the school? Are you sending out congratulation notes on recent baptisms? Are you tracking the kids who are going through First Communion? Can you encourage joint service projects between the students and the kids in the religious education program? These are just a few examples of ways to increase the awareness of parents about your school.
Schools that I work with often ask me about the best way to reach non-parishioners. And many schools are being forced to expand their recruiting efforts to non-Catholics. Nationally, over 17% of students who attend Catholic schools are not Catholic. It is fine to cast a wide recruiting net as you seek to increase your enrollment. But, you might find it is cheaper and more effective to first increase parish enrollment before you spend the time and effort to recruit non-parishioners.