The Connectedness of Advancement and the Resultant Vortex

Sounds like the title of a Dave Matthews Band album, doesn’t it?  (You know, The Resultant Vortex would be a great name for a band!)

Before we get into another round of the five aspects of advancement, let’s take a break to review.

If you’ve been a visitor or subscriber to this site, you’ve come to realize the interrelationship among Asset Management, Retention, Marketing, Enrollment and Development. What happens in one of those areas will affect another; further, that effect may be positive or negative. A little change in one area may have a huge effect on another. While I like to call it “Systemicity,” and its study “Systemicism,” there is a branch of system thinking called systems theory which has many proponents around the world.  Summarized from Wikipedia:

Systems theory is the transdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of elucidating principles that can be applied to all types of systems in all fields of research. The term does not yet have a well-established, precise meaning, but systems theory can reasonably be considered a specialization of systems thinking and a generalization of systems science. The term originates from Bertalanffy’s General System Theory (GST) and is used in later efforts in other fields, such as the action theory of Talcott Parsons and the system-theory of Niklas Luhmann.

Chaos Theory is another way of stating the same idea, only with an initial focus on the negative. Again, summarized from Wikipedia:

Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general. Chaotic behavior can be observed in many natural systems, such as the weather.

While these two theories at first glance may seem to be divergent (that is, systems theory says that every problem is systemic, but chaos theory claims that processes which are mathematically acceptable cannot be accurately predicted), the lesson that must be learned is this: Everything has an effect on everything else.  In other words, nothing happens in a vacuum.  Interestingly, if you think deeply about “Nothing happens in a vacuum,” you’ll find it’s also an absolute truth, since a vacuum is defined as, “A space absolutely devoid of matter” (

Some interesting reading about systems thinking can be found at  The opening paragraph of the article provides a suggested definition:

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how those things which may be regarded as systems influence one another within a complete entity, or larger system. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Applying this to companies and organizations, “organizational health” is something which consultant and best-selling author Patrick Lencioni talks about in his work, “The Advantage.”  Further, the true nature of your school is that it is a system of systems.  You can find out more about the five systems of your school in the “Tetrahedronics” section of this site.

Also note that “Systems thinking” is categorized as a “process,” and it really isn’t.  It’s a “construct,” since a process suggests linear movement, rather than an all-encompassing systemic analysis.

This realization about advancement shows that one just cannot focus on one aspect of advancement and expect things to improve. It debunks the all too common viewpoint, “If we only had more money, then things would be better.”  While money (actually, its proper management) is important, it’s only one element of one system in play in every school.  With that in mind, consider the vortex faith-based schools in particular have been experiencing relative to tuition and enrollment. As tuition rises, enrollment decreases, causing tuition to rise further, causing enrollment to decrease further. At first look, one could say, if we lower tuition, then the enrollment will stabilize, and we can attract more students.

However, recent attempts by schools to consolidate and therefore lower tuition have resulted in lower enrollments! Why? Because the new school is further away, is in a different community, and, for many, “it just isn’t the same school.”  When I was working for a Diocesan schools office a number of years ago, we conducted an exit survey of parents who disenrolled their children or, in some cases, did not re-enroll their children in another Catholic school when the school their children attended was closed.  The most popular response provided by parents to this query was, “You closed my school!”

My school?”  We had assumed it was the school where your children were enrolled!

But in the parents’ mind, it was their school.  Parents pay tuition, and therefore, have a sense of ownership.  They can’t stand when decisions affecting the future of the school are made without their input.  It’s characteristic of Generation X, as well as of the Millennials.  Since they have a bill to pay for the service your school provides, they are indeed the customers of your school.

Note the importance of the changing mindset – which is something that has never been considered in the discussion of faith-based schools over the past decades.  The loss of religious men and women who taught in the schools has been cited as a cause for the hiring of teachers, and therefore, the escalation of costs to be covered by tuition.  However, these religious men and women were not paid a just wage back in the day, and today, religious men and women are indeed paid (albeit very little) for their service to a faith-based school.  The mindset that no one talks about is that when there was no tuition, there really were no “customers.”  The school was a ministry of the parish, or, in the case of a Jesuit high school, for instance, a ministry of the religious order.  Tuition was charged, but the mindset of the parent at that time was that they were supporting the work of the religious order…not paying for private education.

Tradition and “the experience” has a significant impact on retention – not of students, but of parents as families engaged with the mission, vision and values of “their” school. That’s one of the reasons why I believe that retention and enrollment must be separate processes. Yes, you may attract more new students with a more affordable tuition, but changing “the experience” that current parents and students have by merging schools, bringing in additional students with different backgrounds, faith traditions or socio-economic strata can cause an increase in parents choosing a different educational environment for their children, and different doesn’t necessarily mean better.  After all, the new merged school has yet to be proven, and, philosophically, is essentially a new school!

It’s better to focus on increasing enrollment, which requires at least three things (and as you know, there’s always at least three in a system), but really, five things:

  1. An a priori attention to Retention, since the first step to growing your enrollment is keeping the enrollment you already have;
  2. Marketing, to get the word out (which then requires you know the remarkable things about your school to get parents interested in it as the premiere environment for their children’s education, rather than always emphasizing the expectations they already have about your school);
  3. An enrollment system (so that no parent falls through the cracks, and you’re able to contact prospective parents year after year);
  4. Asset management support tools (tuition management and grant and aid assessment services); and
  5. Someone to “champion” the process and take ownership of the actions.

Here’s why this is important.

The downward vortex described above doesn’t need a support system.  Gravity does its best to keep a downward spiral continuing until there’s nothing left. Just look at water going down the drain after washing dishes in the kitchen sink.

However, once an upward vortex begins (that is, more children enroll, tuition can be reduced, causing more children to enroll, causing waiting lists to be created, etc.), a system needs to be in place to support the “upward vortex,” since, after all, gravity can make it come crashing down if a support system falters or isn’t present. If you don’t believe that, then you weren’t watching the stock market about 10 years ago.

Upward vortexes need support – similar to the way mitral valves in our circulatory system keep blood from pooling in our feet when it’s en route back to the heart. Asset management and retention strategies act as these mitral valves for our schools’ finances.  It’s not “just a nice thing to have;” it’s essential to your existence today!

Personally, I instituted some of these support strategies in the schools I worked with, and when I left for a new opportunity, the person who replaced me chose not to continue to utilize them, and focused on generating development dollars because of the popular thought that more money would solve the problems.  What happened?  Schools lost enrollment.  Some were merged, some were reorganized into different grade levels, and some closed.

You’ll notice that development isn’t part of the upward vortex support. That’s because development is a long-term process, and actually forms the base of the tetrahedronic model of Advancement. These four aspects (Retention, Enrollment, Asset Management and Marketing) are elements that work together to reverse the downward spiraling vortex of the enrollment-tuition tug-of-war.

If you’d like more information, or would like to have a discussion on how this process can benefit your school, please send an email to, and use the phrase “Reversing the Vortex” in the subject line.  Remember that all elements in play must have a positive effect on each other.  If one of the elements is causing difficulty, is inferior, or is missing completely, its lack it will manifest itself in one of the other elements of the system.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2018