Sir Paul McCartney performed in concert in Los Angeles a number of years ago in July on the last night of his tour, and surprised his audience when Ringo Starr appeared on stage and played drums for a couple snippets of songs made popular when they were members of The Beatles.   Perhaps you remember one of Paul McCartney’s songs from his time with his group “Wings,” titled, “Let ‘Em In:”

Someone’s knockin’ at the door, somebody’s ringing a bell.
Someone’s knockin’ at the door, somebody’s ringing a bell.
Do me a favor, open the door, and let ’em in.

The song reminds me of the Gospel passage, “Seek, and you shall find; Ask, and it shall be given; Knock, and the door shall be opened. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt 7:7-8)

It seems that there is good news and bad news in faith-based schools today. Many kindergartens are seeing enrollment growth; but the higher grades are seeing higher attrition rates…especially when the family enrolls their third or fourth child in kindergarten, but disenrolls their older children who may be entering the middle school grades. That’s actually a retention issue, and speaks to why enrollment and retention need to be treated as separate processes which work systemically.

Then there’s the phenomenon of school consolidation. In my neck of the woods, 3 schools merged a few years ago after the school year ended to form a newly merged school. It was expected that 400 students would be served, since, of course, many of the students from the two schools that were closing would enroll in the newly merged school. After all, it had a new name, and some of the teachers from the suppressed schools would be hired.

What’s interesting is that it never works out like that.  While it didn’t meet its 400 student expectation, over the following three years, the enrollment continued to decrease.  Then it closed completely.

When I was in Diocesan administration, and we conducted an exit survey to find out why children were no longer in our Catholic schools, we included families who had been in schools that were closed or merged. What do you think the most popular reason was regarding why parents did not have their children in another Catholic school?

The tuition was too high?  No.

Academics weren’t excellent?  No.

The school community wasn’t a safe and caring one?  No.

The most popular reason why a parent had disenrolled their child was, “You closed my school!”  While that seems like an obvious answer, the word to focus on in that response is “My.”  Parents didn’t care that there was another Catholic school for their children to attend, even though the administration had worked diligently to make the transition to another school as smooth as possible.  Parents were answering the survey with the word, “My.”  It wasn’t “our” school, and it wasn’t “my kids’ school,” the open short answer response was “my” school.  Parents take ownership of the school because they’re the ones who are paying the tuition for their children to attend.

For some, even the $500 “incentive” the school offered to parents to enroll their children in the school down the road was no incentive.  In that example I gave about the three merging schools, one of them had an announced tuition of $3000 per student, and the merged school had a tuition of $4000 per student.  Even though the family could apply for financial aid, a common parent reaction was to “forget it,” and not even make the effort to apply for an award or scholarship, let alone enroll.

Further, parents who were experiencing their Catholic school’s closure in Buffalo were asked by a local reporter why they weren’t planning on enrolling their child in another Catholic school.  This happened about a decade ago when 10 schools of the Diocese were closed at once.  The response was a eye-opening one: “We don’t want the same thing happening to the next school we enroll our children in.”  That’s something that’s seemed to have been forgotten over the years as school and Diocesan administrators change.

I’ve also heard school administrators say, “If only there was a was to get a lot more kids in our school at once. Then we could reduce tuition, and more children would stay in our school.” The answer is, “There is a way!”  But, it’s a double-edged sword.  Let’s take a look at why that’s true.

Consider the advice of Paul McCartney, and “Let ‘Em In” by offering parents zero tuition to assist in enrolling or transferring additional students for the higher grades of your school! There are three things, however, you must do first before getting all excited about this tactic to increase your enrollment:

1) Your school must utilize some type of need-based aid/cost-based tuition strategy, rather than doing your budgeting by guessing what type of a tuition increase parents will accept, guessing how many children will be enrolled in the school in the following year, then hoping everyone shows up.  There’s even a book about sales success by Rick Page titled, “Hope is Not a Strategy,” and there are lots of memes available online to emphasize the point.

Under a need-based aid/cost-based tuition strategy, the tuition forgiveness can be tracked as a form of financial aid.  It’s only offered for one year, and that parent can only use the program once, so it requires school and parent cooperation and understanding.  Further, in a cost-based scenario, more children in the school means that the tuition can actually decrease as the years go by and enrollment increases. In a subsidy model, more children in the school means that there is more money the church or group of churches needs to provide as subsidy.  Call it “investment,” but if you’re still doing this, you’re truly subsidizing those families that have the ability to pay, and penalizing those families that don’t.

Some schools even have a scholarship program, and those students who qualify receive some type of scholarship, whether they have financial need or not.  While that sounds great, the reality is that it creates an expectation that the funds will continue from year to year.  Converting your subsidy amount into need-based financial aid is one way to begin to offer assistance if you’ve continually said you have no financial aid funds to award. Remember, telling parents you have no financial aid remaining is a great strategy…to DECREASE your school’s enrollment.

2) You must have room for these children in the classroom without increasing your costs. And today, that’s going to be a VERY important concern with an emphasis on continued distancing considerations due to COVID-19.  In other words, if you have 10 children in 3rd grade, and your maximum pre-determined class size is 15 spaced appropriately apart, then don’t accept more than 5 children since doing so will mean you have to add another teacher for another room. Such a strategy creates waiting lists, and a funny thing happens when waiting lists develop – demand increases! People want to be part of something that’s successful! When there’s no waiting list, parents know they can take their time to make enrollment decisions. When there is one, your enrollment solidifies that much faster.  And today’s if you lead a “small” school, you may have one of the most incredible opportunities to grow your school – by really emphasizing your safe environment!

3) You must communicate this plan to your current parents. They have to know from the get-go what you’re doing. If you simply enact something as radical as this without letting everyone know it’s an effort to grow the school, the results can be disastrous. Current families will come to you and say, “Hey! What about me?  Aren’t I an important part of the school?” Remember, the parents you’re dealing with may be members of the “The Me Generation” as well as Millennials.  Again, recall that parents didn’t say, “You closed the school my kids were enrolled in.”  They said, “You closed my school.”  That’s an interesting comment, especially when one would think that their school were the ones they attended and graduated from.  This is where today’s parents learn that they’re part of the school community, there are responsibilities to protect everyone in the community, and their assistance and participation is needed to make the school grow.

It’s also why school reconfiguration efforts at this point in history need to be examined carefully.  It makes all the pedagogical sense to group students into an elementary setting, a middle school environment, and a high school facility.   The 6th-7th-and-8th building can create STEAM or STREAM programs that facilitate shared learning and classroom experiences among students in all grades, while maintaining grade-specific courses, as well as providing space, such as labs and performance rooms, where this type of instruction can occur.

However, the parents enrolling their children in PK through 10th grade this year are Millennials, who are excited about their educational options; the parents of children in the upper high school grades are members of Generation X, and will wonder, “What are you doing to my school?”

In the elementary setting, children in the upper grades become the perceived leaders of the school, and, as one school administrator commented, “The little kids temper the big kids.”  Further, if you lead a Catholic school, and your Diocese or Archdiocese has a policy administering the sacrament of Confirmation in the 8th grade, it can be the capstone experience of the school’s faith-formation program.  There are Catholic schools I’m familiar with that reconstructed their set up to have a PK-5 building and a 6-8 building.  While pedagogically correct, the parental perception was, “I want to keep my kids together.  If they’re going to be split like this, I might as well send them to the public schools since they’re set up the same way.”  Then, all that planning for a STEM/STEAM/STREAM focused middle school experience indeed experienced “stream”- since that’s where the school went…right down the stream.

Once again, it’s important to share these plans with your current school families, as well as those individuals and businesses who support your school in terms of significant financial contributions, so they can provide input as well as continued assistance.

But back to those members of your current parent community.  You may have a program at your school where parents are given $500 off their child’s tuition as a particular type of “incentive” if they recruit a new student to the school.  However, with a continuing emphasis on tax law, monetary benefits which are “earned” could be considered to be taxable income since it directly “inures to” (that is, benefits) a parent.  Remember that financial aid is either need-based or hardship-based, and benefits the “responsible party” who is paying the tuition.  If it is based on financial need, it is generally non-taxable.  A “scholarship,” on the other hand, may be considered to be a taxable benefit, but because it benefits a child, the child’s tax liability may be different from a parent’s.  The bottom line:  be sure to consult your organization’s tax professional regarding any type of incentive programs you may consider offering to parents of your school community.

Note that much of the article here speaks to money.  While many think it’s “all about the money,” when it comes to faith-based schools today, it’s really “all about the experience” that your school’s parent community has.  Remember those parents who come to you and can’t pay tuition may be driving a new car or truck, and may be taking a vacation or cruise.  Why?  Parents today will pay for, and find a way to pay for, experiences!  With that in mind, is their experience of your school a good one, or is it a great one?  Better yet, is it an excellent one?  Ask them.  They’ll tell you…since they believe it’s their school.

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