For millions of families, including my own, Catholic school provides more than just an education. It represents community, spirituality, and tradition.
Unfortunately, across the country, Catholic school enrollment trends are down. According to the NCEA’s annual report on Catholic School Enrollment, during the 2008-2009 school year, there were 2,192,531 students in a PreK – 12 Catholic school. However, by the 2018-2019 school year, that number had dropped to 1,789,363. As the student population has declined, so has the number of Catholic schools overall, with ninety-three shuttering just last year alone.
For those of us who work in Catholic school enrollment, each announcement of these school closures takes on the same familiar ring. “After years of declining enrollment, St. Mary’s (or Immaculate Heart, or St. Pius) closed its doors last month…” What is even more heartbreaking is when this school has been a pillar of the community for decades. That is a hole not easily filled.
Why is Catholic school enrollment down? To some extent, we can blame the prevailing social attitudes towards religion in general, as organized religion plays an increasingly smaller role in American life overall. More and more Americans are turning away from organized religion and towards a more loosely based moral and ethical code. Pew Research tracks this and in their last survey found that 27% of Americans consider themselves “Spiritual” rather than “Religious”, which was an eight-point jump from 2012. This trend is more pronounced in the younger and more highly educated.
While this trend toward secularism is felt across many faiths, Gallup data suggests that the Catholic Church has been hit particularly hard, with weekly church attendance among Catholics declining from 75% in 1955 to just 39% in 2017.
However, not all Catholic school enrollment trends are the fault of society-wide trends towards religion in general. The Church has not helped itself with the poor response to the sexual abuse controversy and the fact that they sometimes take actions or stances that some younger and more liberal parents are uncomfortable with.
Additionally, the growth of charter schools has provided a credible choice to parents who are looking for an alternative to their neighborhood public school. These days, for Catholic schools to survive, they must be able to compete with the public, private, and charter schools, all of whom are working hard to draw the best students.
However, competition aside, as someone who has worked with all kinds of schools, Catholic and secular, to boost enrollment, I can tell you from experience that despite these challenging trends, the biggest reason why Catholic school enrollment is down is that Catholic schools are not marketing themselves effectively.
In this article, I’ll explain why marketing plan development for a Catholic school is more important now than ever. I’ll demonstrate why Catholic school marketing strategies need to be a parish-wide effort, and we’ll discuss the foundation of any successful enrollment plan for Catholic school admissions. Finally, we’ll dig into how the strategy for Catholic school marketing is similar to and different from other private and public school marketing campaigns, especially in the digital age.
Every school has a mission, but while most private and charter schools aim simply to educate, Catholic schools serve a greater goal. Before you can develop your own Catholic school enrollment plan, recognize that driving greater school enrollment needs to be a priority not just for the principal and the school, but for the entire community including the parish, the pastor, and the diocese (or archdiocese).
Traditionally, Catholic education has proven to be the best way for the Church to bring and keep people into the faith, which is why it is the largest ministry in many parishes. In fact, a study by Georgetown University showed that a child who attends a Catholic school is much more likely to receive the Sacraments of Confirmation than a Catholic child who does not attend Catholic school.
Therefore, Catholic school enrollment should be an activity that the whole parish buys into and works on together. For any marketing plan for Catholic school admissions to be successful, we can’t have territorial battles between schools and parish religious education departments. When a child leaves the religious education program to attend their local Catholic school, it should be seen as a success for the entire parish and community.
I know that this is easier said than done. I have yet to work with a Catholic school where the parish staff wholeheartedly supports the school. However, you must get your pastor to push this message to the parish staff. You can maintain a religious education program with a small number of students. You can’t do the same with a school.
Of course, even with the entire parish on board, the lion’s share of the work creating any marketing plan for Catholic school admissions is going to be borne by the principal, staff, and hopefully by members of the school commission. With so much at stake, I always insist that before settling on any strategy, the school must first collect their relevant enrollment data so they can use hard numbers to drive their enrollment efforts.
What are your school’s enrollment and retention trends? How many applicants do you have compared to last year? Compared to five years ago? How many students do you have transferring in and transferring out? Finally, who are the students themselves? Where are they coming from?
The answers to these questions are the foundation for all effective Catholic school enrollment strategies.
The best Catholic school enrollment strategies in the world can’t be successful unless you are willing to put real resources behind them. I understand that budgets are tight, but in an era of dwindling enrollment, hiring a dedicated person to oversee your marketing plan for Catholic school admissions is more important than ever, and to be honest, it will achieve the best return on investment.
Too often, the responsibility for implementing Catholic school enrollment strategies falls to the principal, but that individual is frequently juggling so many day-to-day responsibilities that they can’t effectively take on such a daunting additional task. Even if time wasn’t an issue, as someone who has worked in marketing for years, I can tell you that the skills necessary to conceive and implement a marketing strategy are vastly different than the skills used to educate. This is true to all marketing in all industries, not just Catholic marketing.
If your school isn’t able to hire your own enrollment officer, consider partnering with other schools in your diocese to share this resource. The problem of how to increase enrollment in Catholic schools is likely borne by all the schools in your area, so it might make sense to band together. Another option is to appeal to the diocese directly to see if they will hire (and fund) an enrollment specialist to centrally coordinate all the area’s Catholic school marketing strategies.
One issue many Catholic schools struggle with when devising a marketing strategy is who, exactly, are they trying to attract? While the answer to this question may seem simple, it’s important to think deeply about it before forming into any Catholic school enrollment plan.
This first target is obvious. All strategies for increasing Catholic school enrollment should begin with the parishioners in your church. Indeed, this is so obvious that sometimes there is an assumption that parishioners will naturally support the school. Sadly, that is not always the case.
Along the same lines, some schools assume that targeting their own parish will be easy. However, even getting a master parish roster is often tricky. Parishes cannot often routinely update their records and don’t always collect the sort of data that schools need.
Since your own parish represents the “low hanging fruit” among your potential enrollees, it is often worth the effort to dig into your parish records and create and organize your own list of potential families, with up-to-date contact information.
This is an ideal project for students, especially at schools that require service hours from their upper grades. A few hours of student phone banking can clean up years of neglected lists and give you a list of your priority families to engage with.
However, all the good information in the world won’t help you if you can’t access and track it. Make sure to enter (or have your students enter) all this information into Customer Relationship Management (or CRM) software so you can store and track your interactions with these highly valuable families.
Once you have compiled a list of families who are members of your parish but not your school, engage with them informally. Find out what perceptions they may have about your school and the reasons why they aren’t sending their children there. You might discover that although you know your school very well, perceptions of the cost and the quality of your school may vary greatly within the parish.
Not all parishes are lucky enough to have a Catholic school. As you expand your search for students, identify these nearby parishes and ask for their parish lists. Also consider reaching out to other local Catholic groups such as the Knights of Columbus, CYO sports leagues, and any Catholic men’s or women’s group in your community. Commercial lists of local Catholics can also often be purchased for direct mail campaigns such as sending out open house announcements.
Catholic School marketing doesn’t end at the Church door. A non-Catholic at Catholic school isn’t a novelty. According to the NCEA, nationally, 18.7% of students who attend a Catholic School are not Catholic. For a Catholic School in an area with a small Catholic population or where the number of Catholics is not enough to fill your school, attracting non-Catholics is imperative.
However, reaching out to these non-Catholic families often requires a different strategy than reaching out to your fellow parishioners. As you come up with your marketing strategy to reach these families, it can be useful to create customer personas to guide you.
Remember, you’re not just trying to find any family — you want ones who will be the most successful in your school. What is your strategy for presenting your school to these families, and what are you doing to overcome any misperceptions they might have?
But before you reach out to non-Catholic parents, be very careful not to fall into the biggest trap that is impeding growth for Catholic schools across the country.
Faith and religion is indeed a major reason why some families choose a Catholic school, and it is often the biggest factor that sets your school apart from your competition.
However, based on research from the National Catholic Educational Association (as well as my own experience), Catholic schools are best served when they promote academic quality first and religion second.
Focusing on religion as your primary (or for some schools, sole) marketing strategy limits your appeal to non-Catholics. It limits your appeal with some Catholics as well!
Many Catholic parents’ primary goal is to find a school with a strong academic program. These parents are primarily looking for quality education, with faith formation as additional consideration.
Indeed, by focusing on religion to the exclusion of your great academic program, Catholic schools risk missing out on potential students and reinforce some of the stereotypes that certain families have about Catholic education. To enroll more students, you must first establish your strong academic performance. Everything else is ancillary and a bonus.
Think about it in this way. Why do parents choose to send their children to a secular school and enroll them in religious education? Or why do they go to the public school and then only bring their child to mass? These are parents who believe that the academic experience that they are getting at their other school is better and they can supplement the faith formation through other means.
I will always ask my Catholic school clients this fundamental question:
So far, I’ve detailed the unique challenges in Catholic school marketing. However, it’s important to recognize that in many important ways, marketing plan development for a Catholic school is just like marketing plan development for any other school or organization.
No school (or any organization or business for that matter) can attract the students (or customers) without strong marketing assets, and these days your most important asset is your website.
Your website is the first place most families will look when they consider your school. Are the words and images on your website reinforcing the marketing messages you want to send? Are you holding the interest of your website visitors, and are you sparking online interactions with these visitors which leads to interacting with them in real life?
Of course, your website can only be effective if you make it easy for families to find you online in the first place. This is why all effective digital marketing strategies (including Catholic school marketing strategies) must consider Search Engine Optimization or SEO. SEO is the art and science of tailoring your website to make it easier for families to find you via search engines like Google.
Another important part of any Catholic school marketing plan is the effective use of email to follow up with families who have expressed interest in your school. Your school is almost certainly sending emails to hundreds of families in your parish and beyond. Nobody enjoys getting poorly timed or poorly targeted emails, which is why a well planned and executed email strategy should be a cornerstone of your Catholic school enrollment strategy.
Finally, your website isn’t the only place families are going to be reading up on you. Many families will also be getting information from online review sites run by Facebook, Google, Niche, and Greatschools. While you can’t control these reviews the way you control your own website, you can take steps to make these online reviews be marketing assets instead of marketing liabilities.
Nick LeRoy, MBA, is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board. Bright Minds Marketing provides enrollment and recruitment consulting to private, Catholic and charter schools. For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve its’ student enrollment, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 317-361-5255.
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