Continuing on from last week, “The Experience” is one of your school’s keys to successful student retention – or should I say, parent retention.

In the PK-12 vernacular, “retention,” for the longest time, meant to keep a child from progressing from one grade to the next; in the higher education space, “retention” means keeping a student enrolled in the college or university for the subsequent year.  To use the term from business, it’s “customer retention.”  This makes sense in the higher education space as well, since it’s the STUDENT that’s the customer.  They’re the ones who are ultimately responsible for paying their tuition bill.

Therefore, “Retention” is directed to the customer, and, in the PK-12 vertical, that would mean “the parent or guardian” since they’re the one paying for the educational experience of their child.

Remember that the first step to building enrollment is keeping the students you have. While I have not been able to find scholarly research on this piece of data, anecdotal examples in today’s Catholic schools show 8th grade enrollment is around 50% of the corresponding Kindergarten cohort.

In other words, if you have 29 students in Kindergarten, odds are that by the time that class gets to 8th grade, there will be about 15 students left under “normal” circumstances.  It was that way from 1967 through 1974 too, and that’s when Catholic schools were bursting with students.

And we are not living in “normal” times, so the cohort equation is more than likely less than half.  A good equation to use to see if you school’s enrollment is stable is K=2(8th); that is, Kindergarten enrollment = 2 times your 8th grade enrollment.  If you’re using K=8th as your guide (in other words, the number of incoming Kindergarten students is equal to the number of graduating 8th grade students, I will give you 10 to 1 odds that your enrollment has been shrinking over the past 10 years.

Yet today, we continue to hear that faith-based schools in particular are shrinking, then merging, then closing because of the same three problems – shifting demographics, rising costs, and declining enrollment.

Those last two words deserve a second (and third if necessary) look.

If a school looks at its aggregate enrollment, it may indeed be declining over the years.  But, the practice of increasing enrollment is targeted to the “entry grade level” of the school.  Sure, a school can enroll a couple of second graders, a fourth grader, and a sixth grader or two, but the main efforts regarding enrollment go toward enrolling kindergarten students in an elementary school, or ninth graders in a 4-year high school setting.  Elementary schools in many areas of the country, over the past few years, have routinely reported that their kindergarten cohorts are growing!  And, interestingly, in these years after the pandemic, there are a number of Christian schools reporting that their enrollment is growing by leaps and bounds!

But if your schools PK and K enrollment are growing but overall enrollment is declining, then, applying basic mathematics, the “shrink” is happening in the higher grade levels as parents disenroll their children.  If you agree with that statement, then declining enrollment is not an enrollment issue – it’s a retention issue.  Interestingly, one of the only retention resources I know of is the text I authored several years ago, and recently updated to include insights about Millennial parents’ mindset that have impacted education.  It’s available on this Web site under the “Retention” navigation tab (or, visit

So what keeps parents engaged with your school?  To jump back to an exercise that was done when this site was first begun, it is your school’s “remarkability” that not only creates, but enhances your students’ and parents’ “experience” of your school.

And it’s not only their children’s school; it’s their school too, since they’re one’s paying the tuition!

If there’s something that draws parents to your school in order to enroll their children because there’s no other school in the local area that can offer this “experience,” your retention success may be better than the school that simply says, “Our remarkable difference is our ability to celebrate our faith and infuse it into our curriculum and daily interactions with one another.”

The only time this position can be considered “remarkable” is if that school is the only faith-based school within a 20-mile radius of a child’s home or of another faith-based school.

An exercise that will help discover your school’s “remarkability” AND give you insight as to how to increase retention through quality experiences is to ask your long-tenured parents (that is, parents of 8th graders – or your highest grade level – that have been there since Kindergarten) three questions:

Why have you kept your children in our school?;

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, rate your experience at your school; and

If answer #2 is not a 10, what ONE thing would the school need to do to make that answer a 10.

If you’re ambitious, do it with parents in 5th through 8th grade. If you’re really ambitious, give the survey to those in 3rd grade and up.

Why not grades K through 2? Those parents are still excited about the school, and the learning their children are experiencing. If you’re the leader of a Catholic school, children are educated about receiving the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist in 2nd grade. It’s after that point in time that parental enthusiasm starts to wane, the activities of the local public school begin to beckon with intermediate schools and middle school environments, and parents become further and further burdened by increasing tuition, especially if there’s a another child (or a third) coming a couple of years after the first.

Next week, a look at financial aid and your school’s tuition model, and how it’s more than likely causing parents to leave, simply because it’s set up incorrectly (and has been for years).

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2023