As our calendar year rapidly comes to a close, I’ve heard from a number of schools who are lamenting the fact that enrollment is down this year, but still “hope” that things will get better as they begin to prepare for the second half of the school year.

It seems that when the calendar page turns to December, school administrators realize that the 3 “R”s of rest, re-connection and re-energizing experienced over Thanksgiving is over, and the 4th “R” – run – takes hold as holiday preparations take center stage, as well as making preparations for the coming school year’s registration processes.

Also, as for “hope,” it’s one of the three things that last – but it’s not a strategy for success.

So since you’ll have some time away from the school this month, this article takes inspiration from a great article originally published in November of 2003 by NCEA (and no longer available on their Web site) and authored by Albert J. “Skip” Shannon, PhD.  Skip has over 40 years of experience in education as a teacher, administrator, Catholic college president, and headmaster, and has consulted with schools regarding issues surrounding governance, strategic planning, and advancement as a partner in the national consulting team with Partners in Mission.  His article focused on 10 things, but since we struggle to hold FIVE things in mind at the same time, I’ve pared it down to five.

And, make no mistake, you can’t just be aware of one or two of these things and apply them to the school you lead.  They’re ALL important, and your competitors may indeed be doing ALL of them.

Notice that the title of the article talks about competitors.  Like it or not, you’re in the education business.  There are more and more educational environments today – faith-based school, private school, public school, cyber school, charter school, and home schooling – and parents of young children are becoming more and more particular about finding an environment which they believe is best suited for their child’s learning.

Also, please note that in today’s marketplace, it really doesn’t matter what you believe, since it’s your customers who build your brand.

If this is a revelation to you, now you know you’re really in the education business…and it’s not just about educating children.

If you think this isn’t true, you also now realize how difficult is it to get people to accept the truth.

While it’s important to pay attention to the faith identity or founder’s heritage of your school, along with the activities, curriculum, technology and surroundings that define your school and make it a remarkable place to be, it’s also important to be mindful of asset management, retention, marketing, enrollment, and development activities (note how the first letters of those five elements spell ARMED – since your school needs to be prepared for the challenges it faces in the coming weeks, months and years).  Skip’s list will let you do a quick evaluation of how your school stacks up against what competitors to your educational environment may already be doing.

  1. Are you using real time data to track your enrollment management efforts?  Have you conducted surveys to find out why students enroll?  What percentage of your students who apply attend your school?  What are the 5 financial trend lines at school say about its financial health?  Do you research your cross-application schools (those to which your recruits apply in addition to yours)?  Do you know their draw rate? Their acceptance rate? Their yield rate?  Their successful student characteristics?
  2. Do you and your board understand the Identify-Research-Cultivate-Solicit-Steward Paradigm as an effective advancement approach?  Is your Annual Fund 5% of your operating budget?  Do you know your best donors? Is your financial model viable?  Are you drawing enough tuition dollars to stay open?  How does your cost compare to your price?  Are you collecting 100% of the tuition due?  Do you give more than 10% of your operating budget away in tuition assistance?
  3. Does your staff development budget equal 1-2% of your operating budget?  It should – because your best competitors are investing in their people.
  4. Do you know your competitors?  Do you offer blended learning experiences?  Are you offering a virtual schools? Have you addressed your sustained competitive advantage?  Can everyone quote your school’s mission and vision?  Do you leverage your charism in articulating your school’s mission and vision?  Have you based your strategic plan on this conversation – are your priorities known and publicized?
  5. Do your faculty and staff understand marketing?  Where do students first hear about your school?  Who makes the attendance decision?  What marketing tools reach your audience?  Is your Website the best one in town?

And as a “bonus” practice, does your school continually explore “best practices” in education-like you expect your doctors, financial advisors and personal attorneys to do on a continuing basis? Or do you engage is “next” practices – where are the trends leading, and what are you doing to make sure your school is there before your competitors beat you to it?

Speaking of “best,” is what you do in salary the best you can do?  How about benefits?  How about technology?  Does any school do anything better than you do? If the answer is YES, then, as a faith-based school, you must ask yourself, “Doesn’t God deserve our best?”