Innovative Idea for Increasing Catholic School Enrollment

by Thom Hiatt

Faith in Marketing proposes that Catholic schools offer free tuition to new families during the second half of the school year. Of course there are details, restrictions and caveats, but don’t let them get in your way. It’s a bold idea that can only be demonstrated by truly visionary leaders. If you don’t have vision and you’re not a leader, there’s no need to continue reading (but we’d love to hear from you at 858-877-3733). Everybody else… let’s go.

Many of our schools are struggling because of one reason: enrollment. Research has proven that COST is the number one reason more families do not enroll a child in Catholic school. Decades ago, private Catholic school was free or really inexpensive, and often was included so long as your family was giving a tithe to the parish. The educators were often religious / clergy. Insurance cost less back then. And so on.

At Faith in Marketing, we see things a little differently. Sure, the modern cost is a huge wall that many families don’t want to climb. We get that. But in the marketing business, we also see that consumers will always buy the things that give them the most value, the best return on investment, and even the best feelings. The consumer that “can’t afford” Catholic school tuition, might have an expensive car payment for a “cool car.” They might go on nice vacations. They might dine out frequently. They might enjoy shopping at department stores on a weekly basis. They might have the money for private school, but they choose to spend that money in other ways.

Sure, many, many families absolutely do not have enough income and they work very hard just to make the basic ends meet: food, shelter, clothing, etc. At the same time, there are many, many families who simply choose to spend their money in other areas where they get the most value (per their opinion).

One day during my teen years, I had parked my car on the street in front of my friend’s house. The neighbor across the street backed his truck out of his own driveway, and broadsided my sedan. The damage was significant. The driver apologized and told me had no insurance and no money. He promised to pay what he could until his debt to me was clear. The best I could do was say, “Okay.”

For months and months I would stop by his house on a weekly basis and collect. Sometimes he gave $20. Other times it was $40. And most often it was, “Sorry, I don’t have anything for you.” The frustrating part was NOT that my car was damaged, or even that he owed me a lot of money. It was that nearly every time I visited his home, there were empty pizza and Budweiser boxes in the garbage. He clearly valued fast food and alcohol more than he valued taking care of his financial obligations.

He had the money! But he and I had differing values.

It’s easy to value consumables more than Catholic education… UNTIL you’ve actually been a PART of the Catholic school family and ecosystem. You have to live it and breathe it before you can really say, “This is better than the other things I can spend my money on.”

International resort vacations are better than Catholic school… until your daughter attends Catholic school and becomes a nicer, more compassionate person.

Expensive luxury cars are much better than Catholic school… until your son attends Catholic school and voluntarily chooses to give half of his allowance to the homeless.

Compliments on your outfit from Bloomingdales are WONDERFUL… until your family realizes it could do more to help others in need, and clothe those who are naked.

Principals know this. That’s why many of them offer prospective families a tour and even a “free week” in class at their Catholic school. That’s great for a really hot prospect who’s already decided to make the investment. But we’re not sure one free week does the trick for on-the-fence families, especially for students who would be transferring from free public schooling. It’s intimidating to be in a new class, with new teachers, and new classmates, with new homework. Friendships aren’t always made overnight. Work loads aren’t always understood or appreciated in just a few days. And private school costs a lot of money.

Let’s get personal…

My daughter finished the 5th grade in public school and began 6th grade in Catholic school. The first week was miserable for her. The second week was terrible. It got better, before it got worse again! The uniforms. The homework. The relationships. Not being picked for teams at recess. Not being invited to birthday parties. And so on. We even had a meeting with the principal, hoping to address concerns and seek solutions / advice. Months passed and she hung in there, often without a smile.

Eventually, our daughter made friends, was invited to parties, appreciated the ease of uniforms, started singing more in Mass, and so on. Now in her second semester, all she can talk about is going to the girls’ Catholic high school three years from now! Wow… talk about a turnaround! Now the school has a really happy customer.

The point is that one free week is not enough. Our daughter never would have stayed in Catholic school had it been based only on her first week.

So we suggest free tuition for a limited number of new families during the second half of the school year. Let’s break that down:

  • Free Tuition — Other industries do this ALL OF THE TIME in an attempt to get you (the customer) in the door. Free meals. Free downloads. Free vacations. If they have a good product with good service, then there’s a good chance you will come back. Right now, the empty seat in your class is gathering exactly $0 revenue for the school. A new student paying $0 tuition is the same, except that you’re likely creating a happy customer who is more likely to come back. You might ask, “Why not discount it? At least then we’ll make some money!” Well, a couple things… First, when you discount something, it’s much more difficult to raise the price later. (Just ask Subway how they like that $5 offer they made many years ago.) To the customer, that increase hurts. An increased price makes customers unhappy. We don’t want unhappy. We want happy. Second, the reason the family wasn’t with you in the first place is because of cost… so rather than dicker, we’re just eliminating the cost.
  • Limited Number — Limit the “free seats” to just 2-5 seats per grade, assuming you have the space available. This goes a long way in preventing too much backlash from other families who are already paying the full rate. A few seats can be explained “as part of our marketing budget to increase enrollment,” and after the semester, the regular rate kicks in. And let’s face it, we’re all used to this. Often we find out we are paying full price when someone else got a great deal. Airlines do it. Cable and cell phone companies do it. And maybe Catholic schools should do it, too. A current family is not going to leave your school because you are trying to fill your school to capacity with students paying 100% tuition next year.
  • New Families — We’re trying to get new families in the door… not a new sibling of a current Catholic school student. That family already knows what “it” is like in private school. But new families don’t yet know the joy that can be found by attending Catholic school. So… new families only. Targeting families in your CCD / Religious Ed programs are a GREAT idea and they most certainly qualify.
  • Second Half of the School Year — This is the most important part. Free tuition at the beginning of the school year really is just a freebie giveaway. Anybody will take it, and those who are not dedicated could easily slip away after the free year is over. But when you’ve limited the free tuition to the second half of the year, the new family must pull their student out of the previous school, leaving those relationships behind. It’s an emotional investment! This action alone means the family is more dedicated to giving Catholic school a fair chance for their child.

Some additional caveats might (and should) be:

  • Require a “materials fee” of some kind so that the new family has some skin in the game. $250 could be a fair fee to cover basic added “expenses” around the campus. No need to go into details. Also require the student to purchase the uniform at their own expense.
  • Limit the “free tuition enrollment period” to just a few weeks. You say, “We take applications immediately after Thanksgiving Break, and until December 15, and then we notify the eligible families, inviting them to enroll and pay fees for the Winter/Spring session. If you don’t enroll and pay your non-refundable fee by December 20, we contact other applicants.”

Award-winning, seasoned educators have said:

  • “Some pastors might see this as lost revenue.” Well, right now you’re getting $0 for that seat. It could be $250, and then if you show them a good time, it will be $6000 next year… the same $6000 that might currently be going to cars and fast food and name brand clothes.
  • “Would insurance cover a visiting student?” They’re not a visiting student. They are an enrolled, insured, paying student with total costs of $250 (plus uniform) for the semester.
  • “Other parents would be upset to find out someone was there for free.” Yes, if you tell them, they might be upset for about a week. But when they realize that the school is actively seeking to bring more children and families closer to Christ, perspectives will change in a heartbeat. Furthermore, you don’t need to broadcast which families / students are part of your zero-tuition program, the same way that you don’t disclose who’s currently getting tuition assistance.

Additional feedback from schools who have ALREADY implemented the program:

  • “We should have had a kick off…. or a way to invite interested parents to come to the school, tour the school, hear a presentation and also hear from current families, particularly ones who have transferred. Have them share what they like about the school now that they are here. We mailed a note with our offer, but it kind of came out of nowhere for many of the parents. We really should have invited them to a kick off event.”
  • “Timing is everything. Our letters arrived in homes just before Thanksgiving, so some may have been lost in the shuffle. We should have started the campaign earlier in the year.”
  • “Be prepared to have a phone-call campaign. Follow-up with phone calls confirming receipt of the letter, if they have questions, etc.”
  • “We reached some families that had previously left our school due to financial issues, and they are not happy where they are NOW. We were able to better educate them about financial aid options, and one of the students already came back to the school!”
  • “We had no push back from current parents, but you need to be clear with them what this is all about.  Word-of-mouth is powerful and you don’t want wrong messages going out.  You don’t want a ‘we are desperate’ message getting out there.  Parents will understand that it doesn’t cost anything more to put a few kids in the empty seats, especially if it leads to new paying families for next year.”

Even more thoughts / ideas from the community:

  • I would send a special invitation to all the RelEd families in the snail mail. The invite would come from Father, and it would be a little vague… just that there’s a big opportunity/event. You follow up with phone calls to confirm attendees and re-invite.
  • The families would be invited to the hall for a brief presentation between Masses on a certain date.
  • In the hall there would be coffee, cookies and some current students — some youngers, middles, and your top-notch 8th graders. Especially some students who transferred from public. They are there to ACTIVELY walk up to, introduce, meet, and talk to every single child in the room…. and laugh and have fun, in a good, professional way.
  • On the wall you have poster boards showing the grade, teacher name, # of girls, # of boys, and # of openings for this program.
  • You tell them:
We have the best school. You have the best children. We want them in our school.
[Brief introduction of your on-hand students. Their grade, which school they came from, and what they like most about the Academy.]
We’re inviting you to join us for the rest of the school year, for absolutely zero in tuition costs. You just buy a uniform. We’ll even soften the rules on your child’s shoes.
Each new parent will also receive one ticket to the special school event of your choice, no charge. Use it any time in all of 2018, even this fall.
We believe that you will LOVE our faith-based education provided on a daily basis via small classes and deeper relationships. 
If you love it, we will invite you to enroll in the fall, just like the other 200 students already here. If you don’t love it and don’t want to enroll for the fall, please know that we will always love you and your child no matter where they attend daily classes.
There’s an application on each of your chairs. Fill it out and bring it to a school tour on the date of your choice, before DATE. We don’t have space for everybody. Also, before you leave, if you are interested, please write your name on the poster board on the wall so that we know what to expect for each grade (this builds some peer pressure).
We’ll contact recipients by phone no later than DATE. You’ll be invited to a new family barbecue at the end of March. And the first day of classes for your child will be on DATE.
Thank you, we love you, and we’ll be here for a while to answer absolutely any of your questions.