We’re all used to the three “R”s of education – and then faith-based schools added the fourth “R” – Religion.  I was all prepared to present an article that focused on three – and three leads to the fourth.  But, if you’ve been a visitor to www.schooladvancement.com, you’ll recall that three leads to four, and four leads to five.

So, perhaps we should call this the Marketing Matter “The FIVE “R”s of a Faith-Based School.”

But let’s start with the basic three, and some background.  Back in 2005, I received a copy of the NCEA’s “Issues in Development” newsletter (Spring 2005).   In it, Dr. Rick Kruska offered his views on “Marketing Catholic Education,” stressing “a new way of thinking” is needed by school administration. Gone are the days of simply relying on faith formation, academic excellence and a safe, positive learning environment to entice parents to enroll their children. He advocated treating schools as a business, with attention to revenues and budgeting to make sure finances are stable, marketing and development to promote the product to potential customers and develop relationships resulting in contributions, and customer satisfaction to retain students.

FIFTEEN YEARS LATER (bold enough?), and schools are still struggling to succeed!  And now, coronavirus invades our nation, along with a new round of abuse claims, and there’s nowhere to turn for financial assistance.  Is anyone paying attention?  Or are we so poor we can’t even pay attention?

In 2002, the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Greensburg (PA) changed to a cost-based tuition/need-based aid model, and I began working for the Schools Office the following year.  During my time there, I spoke with countless parents who wondered if there is any way to keep tuition from rising (and probably still wonder if there is).  I say there is.

Three things must happen – RECRUIT, RETAIN, RAISE.

RECRUIT – When we began our cost-based tuition/need-based aid initiative in Greensburg, “Step One” was defined as “Fill Every Desk.”  However, that message was lost since all people heard was “cost-based tuition.”  It’s the first message because the more children that are in the school, the lower the cost of education per student.  But see if this conversation sounds familiar:

“What do we need to do to bridge a $20,000 budget shortfall?”

“Get 5 children.”

“But they can’t afford $4000.”

“Then get 10 children and give them financial aid.”

“But we don’t have any financial aid dollars left!”

The key is thinking in terms of revenue per child, rather than “how much aid can we give them.”  If there are 10 children that can afford an average of $2000 each, that’s an extra $20,000 of income to your school, whether you have financial aid dollars to give them or not.  As someone once said, “This isn’t rocket science.”  It’s actually an art – balancing responsible stewardship as well as creative tuition reduction and tracking it all to analyze the data create better projections for next year’s budgeting.  And it takes the right mindset and experience to convey that.  Unfortunately, with turnover and budget cutting, inexperienced leaders are looking for easier ways to do things that they’re not familiar with doing.  Remember, H. L. Mencken is quoted as saying, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

RETAIN – “It takes a village to raise a child.” If this is true, then it takes a parish (or a lot of parishes) or church (or a group of churches) to raise children in a faith-based school. Parents usually make the decision to withdraw their child in the isolation of their home, judging how a tuition increase/aid decrease will impact their budget. They do not realize that their action will impact every other child in that school. Once a child withdraws, everyone else’s tuition has just increased. Additionally, we can take a lesson from our public school brothers and sisters. All members of the community pay taxes, whether they have children in the school or not; similarly, all parish or church members need to support the school, whether they have children in the school or not.  Knowing that contributors will support a an organization only when they feel “connected” in some way to it, this means that members of a parish or congregation need to be connected to the school. Gone are the days of school events being “only for the parents of the children in the school.” PTGs need to become PTBCGs (Parent-Teacher-Business-Community Guilds).  Your school needs to become a vital part of your community if you want the community to support you.

RAISE – This is the second step to employing a cost-based tuition/need-based aid model – “Seek Outside Sources for Funds.”  Raise funds through development – absolutely!  Raise awareness through marketing – definitely!  But what about raising concerns?  Parents today want transparency.  Share concerns, and ask for input.  Jesus told us to “Bear one another’s burdens.” Sharing the load makes it easier to carry, which brings us back to the first “R.”

Here’s the fourth “R”:

RECOGNIZE – Schools must recognize the remarkable things they do that make them remarkable places to be.  A school’s “Remarkability” will help to attract new parents to the school, spurred on by the positive word of mouth from those parents who are a part of the school community.  Schools must also recognize outstanding performance, leadership, and service.  It creates positivity, which also helps to make the school a remarkable place to be.  Remember, a faith-based atmosphere, academic excellence and a safe and caring community are not “remarkable” qualities of your school – they’re expectations of today’s parents with young children.  But there is one thing that makes your school totally unique and different from every other school out there.  It’s actually a group of people who create the remarkable dynamic of your school, and if one of them changes, it can have an incredibly dramatic impact on your school and its future.  If you’d like to know what this differentiator is, drop an email to [email protected] with the words “my school’s unique differentiator” in the subject line.

And what about that fifth “R” –

REALIZE – And there are three things to realize:

1) Parents need to realize that decisions made as individuals will have an impact that will affect the group;

2) Schools and parents need to realize that those who are able to pay the full cost of tuition need to pay the full cost of tuition, and, perhaps, even a little more.  The basis for this is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  The most damaging hindrance to this need is that we’ve been “giving it away” for so long…and when you’re getting it for free, rarely do you want to pay when it comes time to do so; and

3) Schools need to realize that internal financial practices are not as secure as they once were due to:

  • New legislation to prevent identity theft
  • The significant amount of dollars that now pass through a school office;
  • New rules governing credit card usage, and now
  • Payment security concerns regarding how funds are kept and tracked since bank account numbers are printed on the bottom of checks; and
  • Receiving checks and cash at the school.  First – It’s not sanitary.  Notice how many businesses opening up now only accept credit card payments.  Second – it’s not consistent.  Notice how many churches are struggling financially because worship services are all online.  With no public worship services, no one’s bringing money to put in the basket…even though most churches have online giving through their Web sites!

Now wait a minute – you’re probably saying, “Where’s ‘Religion?'”  Let’s not mix things up too much.  Religion is a course in a faith-based school.  Living out the faith should permeate the entire school.  The WHOLE school is the mystery of its three basic elements of School, Ministry, and Business as one.  It’s not only the Holy Trinity that is a mystery – it’s what our schools are.  As for the 5 “R”s, remember that 3 leads to 4 leads to 5 which creates the system.

Successful implementation of these “R”s will “require” (another R) a major change in the mindset of not only parents, but parishes, churches and communities as well, and especially, the leadership of these constituencies.   As educators, though, changing a mindset is what we do everyday when we teach the children in our schools. Now we have to find ways to teach the adults…but make them think that it was their idea so that they’ll own it, and then spread the good news about our schools.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2005-2020 (Original Publication Date: 20050613)