You know the conversations that start out, “I have good news, and I have bad news,” and then the speaker asks the listener which one they want to hear first? Some prefer to hear the bad news first; others prefer not to hear the bad news at all.

This time, let’s share some good news first. There’s a trend developing. Faith-based schools are seeing enrollment increases in their entry-level grades! While this may be attributed to schools which are attending to marketing and enrollment processes for their school, and now, due to several years of the pandemic, I believe it’s because the market is changing.

It’s only when you analyze data that you can see anomalies in the numbers develop. If the anomalies continue, and continue in a certain direction, it can indicate the start of a new trend. In this case, over the past decade or two, we’ve seen decreases in the enrollment in faith-based schools, which have led to shrinkage, consolidations and closures. Those seeking answers as to the reason have pointed to two main reasons: shifting demographics and deteriorating economic conditions. However, there are three other reasons, since there are always at least three, but usually five. Today, they are:

3) The Target Market.  This might require some explanation about “The Market” first, so let’s start at the very beginning (that’s a very good place to start, with a nod to Julie Andrews).  The market is not the place you do your grocery shopping, nor is it that thing that investors watch to see where our economic future is heading.  It’s a marketing term which describes the environment in which a business exists.  Therefore, the “market” for your school is the community in which it resides. – and make no mistake…if your school charges tuition, it’s a business.  No school closes simply because the educational standards decline; it closes because there’s not enough revenue to support its operation.  Your school’s “target market” consists of those individuals who are most apt to utilize your school’s services.  Since abortion was legalized in this country in 1973, it would stand to reason that there would be fewer births from that time on. Females born in this year entered into a school’s “Target Market” (that is, young women between 25 and 39 years old who had young children of their own) in 1998. It would stand to reason, then, beginning in 1998, signficantly fewer and fewer children would be enrolled in faith-based schools since there were potentially fewer and fewer parents.  So let’s examine the math involved. In 2016,  those women born in 1973 turned 43 , and therefore, are no longer part of the 25 to 39 year-old “target market, so we’re looking at a new generation of young moms.  Twelve years ago, in 2010, this new generation of parents of school-aged children began to enter this “Target Market.”  Today, we’ve named that generation, “The Millennials.”  So let’s take a closer look at that “Target Market.”

A school’s “Target Market” exhibits some common traits which are a result of the environment in which they live. Demographers cull these common traits, and group those individuals with common traits into a cohort called a “generation.” For instance, in the period after World War II, this country experienced its largest birth rates in its history. The “Baby Boom” ended around 1964, 20 years after it began. It was at that time that artificial birth control (“The Pill”) was invented, but there were other cultural shifts that began to affect the collective psyche of the market. The Vietnam War, The Civil Rights Movement, The Second Vatican Council, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy all had a tremendous impact on the culture of the country at that time. It made individuals more fearful of the future, and rather than having the hope associated with growth and prosperity that happened after World Ward II, they began to withdraw and focus on themselves.  Those attitudes were passed along to the children and created “The ME Generation,” which encompasses those individuals born between 1965 and 1984. The first members of this generation turned 5 in 1970 – which, interestingly, is seen as the apex of faith-based school enrollment.  “The ME Generation” is the first group of individuals to collectively realize by their environments (especially with the impact of not just broadcast television but the rise of cable and the advertising opportunities that ensued) that their social status may not be better than that of their parents. Therefore, rather than sacrificing for the betterment of following generation, they focused on “right here, right now.”   The first of the mothers of young children – that is, young women between 25 and 39 years old who had young children of their own – who were members of Generation X turned 25 in 1990.  So, while the number of school-age children would be decreasing starting in 1978 (5 years after 1973), these children would become mothers of school-age children when they turned 25 in 1998, which is when fewer children would be born from those fewer children of the 1970’s, further hastening the declining population rate of school-aged children.  As described above, those attitudes began to change in 2010, as the Millennials began to enroll their children in school, and thanks to the power of “word of mouth” marketing, were considering faith-based schools more seriously than the previous generation did.  More about this coming up.

4) Other Constituent Attitudes. Pastors, Principals and Business Managers of today have inherited myriad issues that affect Catholic schools, and have grown up within the culture of The ME Generation. For instance, a pastor might see an increase in the number of students in the school and think, “Great. 10 more students means $25,000 that the parish won’t have” since the parish subsidizes the tuition of every student in the school. Principals might not be prepared for the challenges they face as administrators because they love teaching, and the only way to advance their careers and income is by moving into new administrative roles, rather than focusing on their love of teaching. Business Managers in parishes or churches might look at tools to make their job easier, but their job becomes a whole lot easier if the burden of the school’s financial woes wasn’t present and persistent. Of course, there are positive corollaries to each of these, but put these three potential negative mindsets together, along with the other four elements, and emergent property is what we’ve seen happen to our faith-based schools over the past 50 years.

5) The Pandemic.  I’m sure this is where someone is going to think, “This is even more bad news.”  Indeed, there is significant negatives to the emergence of a virus we had never seen before and were not prepared to combat.  However, thanks to the decoding of the human genome in 2003, scientists and researchers were able to come up with some vaccines that would help to protect the population, since vaccines do not immediately eradicate the disease.  While many doctors will even say there’s not enough research behind what’s going on to prove efficacy, the fact is that at a vaccine for polio took almost two decades to CREATE.  Many children were tragically affected by it – but it was in a time where it was not uncommon for a family to have 5 or 6 or more children.  Today, with lower birth rates, smaller families, and fewer middle-aged Americans who produce fewer children, such a virus would be devastating!  But – isn’t it interesting that many faith-based schools have seen enrollment increases during this unprecedented time!

Now while that seems like a lot of bad news, let’s look to the future.  Some experts have called this time period “Perpetual Beta,” because EVERYTHING has changed in the past two years!  Gatherings, food preparation and delivery, work locations, online learning, shortages of vehicles and an abundance of computers, air travel, political ideologies and the example set by our elected officials.  Due to the rise of social media, communities have changed.  Your community may no longer be your “neighborhood,” but is the community you’ve built or social circle you’ve created with friends on Facebook by joining a Group, or even playing a game (like ToonBlast).  Millennials (born between 1985 and 2004) are seeking out educational options for their children, and this includes faith-based school options.  They represent every grade level in the PK-8th grade, and are now starting to enter the traditional 9-12 high school setting.  These individuals are more socially and societally-oriented, and willing to sacrifice more than the bulk of their Generation X predecessors are – but as long as there is an advantage for their “friends” too.  In other words, while the “Me” Generation was all about phrases like, “my kids,” and “What have you done for me lately,” Millennials have morphed the term, “guys” to refer to any group of people, rather than just a grouping composed exclusively of men. If a new parent becomes a happy (not just satisfied) member of your school community, they’ll tell their friends, and you’ll experience growth.  The double-edged sword here is that if these new parents enroll their children in the school, and experience mindsets that have been “stuck in time,” or actions based on “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” they’re gone.  I’ve seen school leaders that are amazed at the growth of their schools, while others can’t figure out why their enrollments are drastically declining.  They collect data, but then don’t use it to plan a new course over the long-term; they just use it to adjust from one year to the next.  And that’s the thing about this generation of parents.  They want a great experience, and will pay money for great experiences.  Schools must now be able to connect with these customers in ways that expect to be treated when they’re paying four or five figures for their children’s education.

And that’s where the bad news starts, especially for schools that don’t have an advancement director, a vibrant Web site, a social media presence or who just don’t know what really makes their school a remarkable and distinctive educational environment for their students.  Make no mistake – we can no longer say, “I just want to focus on teaching students.”

If you’ve read this far, you now have the background to understand why your school needs a full-time Advancement Director.  Many schools have realized the opportune position of today’s marketplace, and have appointed a parent volunteer to fulfill this role, or have given a teacher additional responsibilities regarding marketing the school, editing the Web site, tracking enrollment, or coordinating the school’s annual appeal or dinner event. The bottom line is that either approach won’t be enough to positively affect your school’s bottom line.

If you need some rationale in order to add a full-time Advancement Director to your staff, here are some reasons you can share with your board:

1) The school needs to seek outside sources for funds. It’s difficult to do that when someone’s doing it part-time, or is in the confines of the walls of the school throughout the day. The Advancement Director should spend most of their time outside the school. The principal is the school leader, and should be there to care for it. If the principal has advancement as a primary focus of their job, then a lead teacher should be appointed that acts as the principal in matters of curriculum and day-to-day operations of the school. The danger? Parents and board members who say, “Why isn’t the Principal ever here?”

2) Someone needs to manage the system. The five elements of advancement (Asset Management, Retention, Marketing, Enrollment and Development) need to work together as a system. Some schools have committees that focus on enrollment and retention, as well as marketing and development. Unfortunately, enrollment and retention are separate processes, and marketing affects much more than development. They’re all separate processes, and should have separate committees, but they all need to work in concert with each other. You need someone to oversee the work of those committees and make sure they’re all working so that everyone is rowing, so to speak, in the same direction.

3) Every school needs an indefatigable (untiring) cheerleader. There’s so much difficulty that a Principal has to deal with – upset parents, teacher retention, skinned knees, budget preparation, new curriculum standards, accreditation, and the list goes on – that “raising money” just becomes something else on the plate. What’s more, if they do pay attention to it, the other things weigh so much on their minds that they’re not necessarily in the right frame of mind to put the time into developing a relationship with a just-identified graduate of the school that has the potential to give a five-figure gift to their elementary Alma Mater. Development is a long-term process, and Principals are usually evaluated on short-term results.

4) Two by two. Jesus sent his disciples out two by two for a reason. If one fell, the other could help. Similarly, an “ask” can be facilitated by both the Advancement Director and the Principal, since the Principal is the head of the school, and is the proper person to invite a major donor to make a difference in the lives of children with a significant gift to the school. It’s like a volleyball game. The Advancement Director provides the set-up, while the Principal spikes the ball at the net.

5) Advancement does not stop. It’s a full-time, year-round job. It’s forward moving. The only businesses I know that can close down for a certain period of time and then successfully reopen again are ice cream stands, amusement parks and swimming pools. If a school’s goal is to create “life-long learners,” and then shuts down for a couple of months, learning is only taking place 10 months out of the year. While schools may be in shut-down mode during July, the first tuition payments of the new school year are being made, parents who just moved into the area want information about your school, and now, here comes a donor who wants to make a gift to the school and finds that the doors are locked, and no cars are in the parking lot. Their first impression – it’s closed…and in today’s environment, that may be not just for summer.

The emergent principle from these five elements is relationship building. The Advancement Director facilitates the relationships with outside constituencies that add the necessary third leg of support for your school in addition to tuition and funding provided by your school’s supporting churches. If your school is just relying on parents paying tuition and the parish or church for all of its revenue, that’s only two legs. And humans, birds and some marsupials are the only living things that can stand on two legs.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2022