Overcoming Negative Perceptions About Your Catholic School
Catholic schools are the largest provider of private education in the United States, but to the families who attend them, they are much more than that. Catholic schools are pillars of their communities, providing quality education at a reasonable price, while giving students both a moral and intellectual foundation that will help them succeed in college and in life.
Despite this, Catholic education in the United States is struggling. According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), more than 20% of Catholic schools have closed since 2005, and in 2018 alone, enrollment in Catholic schools nationwide fell 2.3%
The quality of education at Catholic schools, however, remains excellent. According to a study in the Journal of Catholic Education, students graduating Catholic schools have higher ACT scores, higher college GPAs, and are more likely to graduate college than their public school peers.
What, then, is the root cause of the current Catholic school troubles? The problem is a matter of perception.
In 2018, the NCEA in partnership with FADICA produced what I think is some of the best research on why parents are not choosing Catholic schools and what schools can do to address this decline. This work, entitled: The Catholic School Choice: Understanding the Perspectives of Parents and Opportunities for More Engagement is some of the best research that I have seen to date on the challenges of Catholic schools. I would encourage you to download and review that work and keep reading for a summary of their findings.
What Parents Think of Catholic Schools
For a long time, Catholic schools had an image of being tough but fair, with high standards rivaled only by their high achievement. For many families, Catholic schools served as a lifeline to escape struggling public schools without having to pay the exorbitant tuition of most independent private schools. Those students who graduated from Catholic high schools went on to great success. Indeed, five of the nine current Supreme Court justices attended Catholic schools.
Over the years, society has changed and the perception of Catholic schools has changed along with it. Americans in general, and Catholics in particular, are less religious than they used to be. A Pew Research found that 27% of Americans consider themselves “Spiritual” rather than “Religious”, an eight-point jump from 2012, while Gallup data reveals that weekly Church attendance among Catholics declined from 75% in 1955 to just 39% in 2017.
Meanwhile, The Church’s poor response to the sexual abuse controversy, along with certain actions and stances that are unpopular with younger and more liberal parents, haven’t helped reverse this trend.
Indeed, according to a survey by the NCEA, the four biggest concerns that families, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have about sending their child to Catholic schools are:
- Too much stress on religion or fear of religious indoctrination
- Too expensive
- Poor quality of education
- Lack of diversity
When confronted with this list, many Catholic educators immediately recognize that these perceptions are just plain wrong. Catholic schools typically are less expensive than their independent private school counterparts, and the quality of education is usually quite high. Many Catholic schools also provide a diverse classroom environment, educating families from all races and, yes, religions.
However, in the world of marketing, perception is more important than reality. So how can we change the perception?
Are you a Great CATHOLIC School, or a Great SCHOOL That Is Catholic?
The NCEA didn’t just survey parents about their concerns with Catholic schools. They also asked parents what characteristics they’re looking for in any kind of school. According to the survey, parents are most often looking for schools that provide excellence in these areas:
- Encouraging individual and critical thinking
- Preparing children to successfully enter the job market
- Preparing children for college
Or, to put it another way, parents’ top three concerns are:
The results can’t be any clearer. Stressing high quality education before religious instruction is the most important and most impactful thing a Catholic school can do to appeal to more families.
This doesn’t mean changing the focus of your school. What it means is changing the focus of how you present your school to families.
For example, your website is likely the first place parents will go to learn about your school. Before any parent even reads a word, what image do they see? Is it an academic image or a religious image?
Similarly, how is your school tour structured? Some parents might be impressed by your chapel, but more will be impressed by a technology lab. In fact, the NCEA found that Catholic schools specifically suffered from the perception that they don’t do enough to stress STEM, so maybe add a stop at your Chem lab, too. (A little sidebar – I had a parent in a focus group tell me that he thought Catholic schools only taught creationism. Yes, these perceptions do exist and they are impacting your school)
From presentations at school fairs, to brochures, to how you describe your school in regular conversations with families, make sure you are always stressing the high quality of education first.
Again, this does not mean that you stray away from the morals, ethics, values and yes even the doctrine of the Catholic church. Rather, when you are promoting your school, you need to discuss your academics first and foremost.
Demystify Tuition Costs
“Too expensive” was parents’ second biggest concern about Catholic schools, which shouldn’t be too surprising since the biggest competition is often local public or charter schools which are free.
That’s why it’s important to assuage parents’ fears about the cost of Catholic school by clearly communicating any tuition assistance programs you may have and clearly explaining to parents the process for applying.
Also, some states offer tax credits, vouchers, or other tuition assistance to families who choose not to attend public schools. If your school is one of those states, make sure to make families aware of these programs and offer to help them navigate the bureaucracy so they can receive the full amount of assistance that they’re owed.
And this is not just providing a link on your website to the state program that explains in bureaucratic language how to apply. It means actively walking parents through the process of overcoming one of the biggest hurdles in attending your school.
We covered tips on how to improve your tuition page in this article called "The Seven Secrets to a Stronger Tuition Page".
Present Your School as a Welcoming and Diverse Space
While your school may draw a large number of your students from your dioceses, it’s still vitally important to present your school as open to all students, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.
Not only do you want to cast as wide of a net as possible to find new families (nationally, almost 1 in 5 students at Catholics schools are not Catholic), but this kind of diversity and openness is important to Catholic families, too.
First, Hispanic families represent the fastest growing group of Catholics in the United States, so make sure to celebrate the diversity of your community to make them feel welcome. In fact, depending on the demographics of your area, you may consider offering tours and brochures in Spanish as well as English. At the very least, ensure that your website can be translated into Spanish. And make sure that the pictures you show of your students on your website reflect the diversity of your school.
Next, it’s not just non-Catholics who are concerned that a Catholic school might be too rigid and stifling. Both Catholic and non-Catholic parents want their children to be able to compete and thrive in a diverse, multi-cultural global marketplace. Catholic schools must demonstrate that they aren’t walled off from this future but instead are engaging with it directly, providing their students with the skills they’ll need to succeed.
Leverage Your Strengths Teaching Morals, Not Religion
The perceptions of Catholic schools are not all bad. One advantage Catholic schools have over public and independent schools is the view that they provide moral guidance along with academics and that they create good citizens.
The key is to present your faith as part of a moral and spiritual framework designed to raise good PEOPLE, not just good CATHOLICS. Every parent wants their child to have a strong moral compass, and Catholic schools are uniquely positioned to provide this. However, parents don’t want the sermon on Sunday to bleed into class on Monday morning. Make it clear to parents that your school doesn’t seek to proselytize or preach religious beliefs, but instead seeks to instill values that are universal.
One way to play to this strength is by advertising your school’s commitment to the local community. Show off your students’ volunteer work and stress to prospective families the importance your school places on giving back to the community and helping those in need. No matter how religious a family is (or isn’t), they will like the idea of their child doing good.
It’s a Matter of Framing
Obviously, tradition is deeply valued in Catholic education, so encouraging schools to make large, sweeping changes isn’t realistic. However, with these changing times, schools must at least change how they communicate.
By stressing education ahead of religion, demystifying cost, celebrating diversity, and showing how they help raise good people, not just good Catholics, Catholic schools won’t be deviating from their mission. Just the opposite. By presenting their schools in a fashion that appeals to today’s parents, Catholic schools can reverse the current downward trends and ensure that they will be around for decades to come. And in fact, if you actively encourage non-Catholics to your school, you might just find that they will turn into Catholics in the end.
Looking to change the perception of your Catholic school? Let’s set up a free consultation.