I was hoping to call this article “Whom Do You Serve?” but most schools would answer, “The children.” But you don’t market your school to exclusively to students (unless you’re affiliated with an institution of higher learning). If you lead an elementary school, you market your school to parents; if you lead a secondary school, you market your school to BOTH parents AND students. For this reason, your school’s target market is parents with young children.
This is where it gets very interesting, especially for faith-based schools. Most administrators point to 2 reasons why schools are experiencing difficulties – demographics and economics. I don’t buy either one. First, a little more about each, then we’ll look at three of the real reasons: mindsets, generational awareness and problem misidentification.
Blaming demographics could be valid if there are no children available to attend your school. This may be true for some schools, but does your local public school district have children enrolled in its schools? If so, you have a potential population to serve. The problem is they are not coming to your school. That’s a marketing issue – not a demographic one. You have to find a way to reach the parents of these children. If you would just get 50 students from the local public school district, do you think it would hurt the district? No. Would 50 students help your school? Yes. That’s just 5 students for each grade level in your PK-8 school! Then, you must find a way to get those parents engaged with your school and excited about the possibilities and the remarkable qualities about your school.
How? Most schools resort to announcements in bulletins, pulpit talks, and even billboards. Sorry – those are all great “marketing for awareness” strategies, not “marketing for enrollment” strategies. Here are three “marketing for enrollment” strategies: 1) Word of Mouth; 2) Religious Education Programs; and 3) Door to Door.
Word of Mouth is the least expensive marketing strategy, and yet, the most effective. Teachers and current parents are the best marketers of your school. However, if they’re complaining about students not receiving attention, the increasing tuition costs, constant fundraising and fee after fee after fee, then you need to take care of some of those things before more students leave your school. See how this is all systemic? Tuition and fees are directly related to Marketing which affects Enrollment which affects Tuition and Fees…and the cycle continues…even though most school leaders don’t see how paying for tuition could negatively affect the school! They just think it’s the cost. But the cost is the “what,” and everyone knows “why.” The difference (and the problem) comes with “how” the two are connected…and that’s “how” your school bills for and collects tuition throughout the year.
If students are involved in your church’s or parish’s religious education programs, you have a captive audience to present the remarkable qualities (notice I didn’t say benefits) of your school. Benefits don’t “sell” – since they’re expectations of today’s parents. It’s almost like saying, “I like this BMW because it has heated leather seats and exceptional handling.” Sorry, I expect those things from a BMW. Now, if you put that in a car that costs only $13,000, THAT’s remarkable. There may be reluctance on the part of the church or parish, however, to permit approaching these families. Perhaps it might be a threat to the religious education director, or perhaps the pastor doesn’t want to offend parents that choose a public school education. The best way to approach this is to meet with all individuals involved, explain your strategy and how you’re going to carry it out. By the way, it’s a good idea for ALL students AND ADULTS to attend religious education classes held by the church or parish. It helps to build your congregation’s community.
Door-to-Door is pretty self-explanatory. It’s bold, and we need to be bold today. Engage a local printer to make some door hangers to announce your school’s open house schedule (you need at least five if you’re going to schedule them), and have a volunteer crew canvass the neighborhood a couple of Saturday mornings before the next one. Some schools have open houses every week; some have embraced the Millennial mindset and say that EVERY day is open house…since Millennials are going to show up whenever it’s convenient for them and expect (there’s that word again) that you’ll make and take the time necessary to talk with them, tour the school, and answer their questions – regardless of what your schedule looks like. Why is this important today? Parents are making evaluations about your school at every opportunity. How you respond to them when they’re interested will set the stage for how they expect you’ll respond to them once they’re enrolled. If that behavior is different, that will lead to difficulties in keeping them engaged with your school’s parent community.
Right now, our nation really hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, and, frankly, the new revision of the tax law in 2018 did absolutely nothing to better the situation for most people who file taxes. Yet, in many faith-based and private schools, enrollment is INCREASING! This is baffling to most people, but I view it as parents taking stock of what’s really important in their lives. They may have thought that the Stock Market would provide security. It won’t. Perhaps the value of their home would provide security. It won’t. There is only one investment that will have eternal dividends. Interestingly, 10 years ago, just a year after the Great Recession, non-profit organizations were experiencing drop in contributions, but churches were experiencing an increase. Six years ago, according to EthicsDaily.com (http://www.ethicsdaily.com/church-giving-drops-even-as-charitable-giving-increases-cms-22105), charitable giving was increasing, but giving to churches was decreasing.
The Real Reasons
The real reasons are mindsets, generational awareness and problem misidentification
There are 5 mindsets that are at work in faith-based schools: the pastor, the school administrator, the business manager, the parents, and the teachers. One could also add another, which is that of the “board,” but there quite a few different board configurations and types, each of which can produce interesting dynamics. Each of these mindsets could have a detrimental impact to the school since they all work together systemically. All mindsets need to have a “positive” charge, since if there is one “negative,” it will have a negative impact on the system, since something negative has has significantly greater impact than something positive. For instance, if a person has a positive experience, in days before the Internet, it was said that the positive experience could impact 10 people. However, a negative experience could impact as many as 250 people. Today, with service review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and eCommerce sites posting product reviews, hose numbers can be significantly higher today. Just one negative review is enough to negatively impact a company’s reputation. Similarly, just one “negative process” within your school will override all the other “excellents” your school has achieved. Think of it this way – your student has just come home with a report card that has 6 A’s and 1 F. What’s you’re reaction, and what are you focusing on? That’s what I thought. Now apply that to your school.
Your school’s target market segment is parents with young children, and there are two issues to consider. First, it’s important to have an awareness of who these parents are. Second, it’s important to be aware of the role of today’s parents with young children. Both of these reasons impact each other, so they have to be dealt with together.
The target market can be categorized as “females 25 to 44 years old with children” because it is the mother that is the primary caregiver for the child, the one that’s doing most of the research and planning for the household, and the one that has the closest bond to the child. In many families, the unfortunate circumstance is that dad may not be present, or the cohabitating significant other who is not dad may or may not be trying to assume that role. When I worked directly with Catholic schools, I observed many individuals in this situation, and heard the phrase, “Those are her kids” when the cohabitating significant other is approached regarding the possibility of helping with their tuition expenses. Further, research released in 2007 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) pointed to the finding that fathers who attended Catholic school were more apt to support sending their children to a Catholic school. Therefore, if mom wants to send her children to a Catholic school, and the father is estranged, AND did not attend a Catholic school, the tuition issue will certainly be a major deterrent to enrolling the children in a Catholic school.
But even if all those issues are mitigated, look at that age range – 25 to 44 year-olds in 2019 were born in 1975 through 1994. Those parents born in 1965 through 1984 are members of Generation X – the ME Generation. They see their children not as children but as THEIR children. This is why parents are mystified when they are called to school to discuss their child’s disruptive behavior. To the parent, it’s an affront on their capabilities as a parent, and it reflects badly on them. Today’s parents need affirmation and community. They need to feel they are a part of the process – perhaps because they were not provided a stable and secure environment as a child, and were “latchkey” kids who came home to an empty house if both parents worked, or, if they were raised in a single-parent household. Today, they do all they can to keep their families together, and, if dad isn’t around today, the parent and child tie becomes even stronger.
The other parent community enrolling their children are The Millennials. Born 1985 through 2004, they are more “spiritual” and are seeking excellent educational environments for their children. Unlike previous generations, however, these parents have college degrees, and if they can’t find an educational environment that exceeds their expectations, then home schooling may be a viable option for them. In regards to rules, Baby Boomers were the ones who followed the rules, even though they questioned them. Generation X’s mindset is that the rules don’t apply to me – they are the “X”ception. Millennials ask, “Rules? What rules?”
When I discover a news story regarding a school that’s closing, economic difficulties and shifting demographics are usually cited as the reasons for declining enrollment. Yet, schools have made great efforts at enrolling students at their “entry-grade level.” In other words, if the school is a K-8 school, the number of children in kindergarten has usually surpassed the number of kindergarten students in the previous school year. This makes logical sense, since members of the Millennial generation are very interested in enrolling their children in faith-based schools.
Therefore, declining enrollment is NOT an enrollment problem – it’s a retention problem. If your school is a K-8, look at the number of students in 8th grade, then see how many students were in that kindergarten class 9 years ago. Chances are it was higher, and, in most cases, up to double the number.
Now that you’re aware of these issues, consider that your task is much more important than just educating children. As an administrator, you are evangelizing to parents. You need to involve them in your school, rather than wishing they’d stop being “helicopter parents” as Generation X parents were referred to, or “snowplow parents,” as Millennials strive to clear the path for their children to succeed. You need to offer them a community where they are welcomed. You need to offer them an experience that’s second to none. People will pay for experiences for their families. If you don’t believe that, the next time a parent drives to your school in a Lexus to say they can’t pay this month’s tuition because of the family’s trip to Disney World, think of where these parents are coming from – then figure out how you can offer them ways to help make your school an “experience” that they will tell all their friends about.
The real misidentification is much deeper, however. It takes all three of these items and combines it into one question. If you’d like to know what that one question is, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the words – The One Question to Ask Yourself About Your School’s Community – in the subject line.
© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2009-2019 (Original Publication Date: 20091026)