When I this question to school administrators, there are three traits which area cited more than any other attributes:

– Academic excellence;

– Faith formation; and

– A safe and caring environment.

Consequently, many faith-based schools create their marketing materials spotlighting these “big three,” and then wonder why enrollment still decreases from year to year.  What’s even more frustrating is that these schools assure me they’ve done their research with their parents, and these traits are what parents appreciate most about “their” school.

You may be thinking, “Wait – that line should read, ‘These traits are what parents appreciate most about the school where they’ve enrolled their children!

Perhaps in a few years…but most parents don’t think this way.  Two generations of parents have children currently enrolled in PK-12 faith-based schools, and the vast majority of parents are Millennials, since most of them have children in the PK-8 grade grouping.  Members of Generation X, the “Me” Generation, still have children in grades 11-12, and those children of Milliennials will be in 12th grade full-force next year, with just a few Generation X parents since most of them have college-age students.  For both of these groups, even though their children are enrolled in school, and you may think it’s “the children’s school,” parents are the ones paying the tuition.  Therefore, it’s “their” – yes, “the parents'” – school.

I was made painfully aware of this mindset a number of years ago when the Diocesan Office for Catholic Schools I was working in did an exit survey of parents who withdrew or didn’t re-register their students from our Catholic schools when some of the schools closed.  We did this because, as is the common practice when a Catholic school closes, parents were encouraged to enroll their children in other schools in the Diocese which were accessible to them.  About 17% of the families surveyed responded, and one of the most popular answers as to why their children were no longer enrolled in a Catholic school of the Diocese was, “You closed my school”  It’s important to note the response was not, “You closed my kids’ school.”   It wasn’t even “You closed our school.”  The response was clear: “You closed my school.”  And that’s even if there were other schools they could attend!

Why didn’t they enroll their children there?  Because it wasn’t “their” school.

Unfortunately, many administrators don’t understand this phenomenological behavior, and, especially Catholic schools, expect families will go the nearest Catholic school.


Perhaps because it’s the “Catholic school,” and all the Catholic schools espouse those traits mentioned at the start of this article.

But we market schools on what make them “unique,” and extoll their unique differentiators.

Seems like the total opposite message, right?

And experience is showing that’s absolutely right, so let’s unpack this a little further.

And yes, these families that no longer enrolled their children appreciated excellent academics, formation in the faith, and an educational environment that was safe and nurturing.  Unfortunately, these are not “remarkable” attributes of a faith-based school.  Academic excellence, faith formation and a safe and caring environment are expectations of a Catholic, Christian, or any faith-based school.  Parents already know these things about the school.  They expect excellent academics; they expect a safe and caring environment; and they expect a strong formation in the faith.  In the spirit of consumerism, however, they’re not going to “pay for” expectations.

Therefore, the question which must be asked is:

“What is “remarkably different” about our school that will attract parents, and in doing so, make our school their preferred option regarding the place where they want their child to be educated?”

Interestingly, and perhaps unfortunately, to simply say that there are other schools where a parent can enroll their child to receive the same type of education is to admit that there is NO unique differentiator among the choices.  When that happens, there is “no significant difference,” and as research has showed, where there is no discernable difference, the product becomes a commodity, and lowest price wins the argument.

Now you know why when faith-based schools close, a significant number of parents choose the public school option.  The parent, along with the child, must feel that the school environment is where they not just want to be, but desire to be. They must become emotionally engaged with it – not just logically informed about it.

To illustrate this point, the Diocese referred to in the above paragraph has two high schools. When I started in my new role in the schools’ office 20 years ago, I walked into the one that was centrally located to most of the elementary schools of the Diocese.  Frankly, I could have been a ghost walking from the from the front door to the office.  Students I passed in the hallway seemed to be oblivious to the fact that there was a stranger with an ID badge walking their halls.  The other high school that always seemed to be struggling to get by financially, however, had a completely different atmosphere. I was made to feel welcome there as soon as I walked in the door!  Students asked if they could escort me to where I was going and their enthusiasm showed on their facial expressions. I wondered why the school struggled as much as it did, and thought that all people would have to do is come to the building and they’d be immediately hooked!

Some research, however, answered the “why” question.  Although there were differences between the two Catholic high schools, the latter school was located in an area where the reception was the same when a visitor entered the public high school of that community as well. It stood to reason, then, that potential families may not have wanted to pay tuition when they saw “no significant difference” regarding how they were made to “feel” when they entered the school (and, to overemphasize the point, educators know all about what happens when the research shows “no significant difference”), even though the school had excellent academics, a safe and caring community, and offered a continued formation of the student’s faith…something that the public school couldn’t necessary boast about.

That’s where the Maya Angelou quote is proven: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s not good enough to know yourself and your school’s Opportunities, Weaknesses, Threats and Strengths (or OWTS); you also have to know your competition and their OWTSs too. Touting faith-based values, excellent academics and a caring environment won’t increase enrollment – unless others see that a remarkable difference is manifested in the actions of the school’s students, and other schools in the immediate marketplace don’t provide that experience.

Certainly survey the parents of your school community, but focus on the families in the entry grade and the next higher one for your school (for instance, K and 1 in an Elementary School, or 9 and 10 in a High School.  Perhaps 7 and 8 if your high school is a Junior/Senior High School).  Dig a little deeper to probe for the differentiators that make your school unique in the marketplace to these families, or discover the processes that create the excellent academics, faith formation, or a safe and caring environment, and focus on how families experience those traits.

Why not survey parents of the of the children in the upper grades?  Two reasons.  First, they’re looking at what’s ahead for their child, so they’re trying to make their own decisions of what’s in store for their future at the child’s next school, and they’re now sufficiently removed from the initial enrollment experience that they’re more apt to answer the question as to why their children have remained enrolled in the school, rather than why they enrolled their children in the school…and that’s Retention research; not Enrollment research.

I’m also familiar with another example of schools that are experiencing declining enrollment when other faith-based schools around them are increasing their enrollment – and can’t understand why their schools aren’t experiencing the same effect.  It’s a pretty radical evaluation, but it’s based on two things:  the systemization of non-differentiation and the lack of people that own the complete processes involved with enrollment growth.  If you’d like to have a conversation about it, visit https://calendly.com/schooladvancement/30min to schedule a time to chat.

Remember, there’s something your school has that absolutely no other school has – and that’s one of the reason why the assumption that parents will simply choose another Catholic school if a Catholic school closes is a false one.  If you would like to know what that is, sent an email to [email protected] with “The most unique differentiator” in the subject line.  You might be surprised to discover you’ve always had what makes your school uniquely remarkable!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement.com, 2012-2023 (Original publication date: 20120615)