Looking to the Future of Catholic School Enrollment

William J. Acton William J. Acton, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners

In addition to providing students with the absolute best learning experience, the healthiest schools are still focused on the future. And at the top of that focus is future enrollment.

A January scan of Catholic schools across the country shows that as we move through the early parts of the second semester, we are seeing a variety of pandemic delivery systems. Some schools are all virtual, some blended, some fully opened. It’s a reflection of each local community, as well as the philosophy and gameplan of each individual Catholic school. There is no question that most Catholic schools have delivered a superior experience regardless of the format they have used. We are inspired by the hours and thoughtfulness school leaders have directed towards making the right decisions.

In addition to providing students with the absolute best learning experience, the healthiest schools are still focused on the future. And at the top of that focus is future enrollment. Recruiting and retaining students during the pandemic is incredibly challenging, but more important than ever. The numbers on Catholic school enrollment have been trending downward for some time, as we all know. The reasons are as varied as there are schools, but one thing is clear: Catholic schools need the "right" new approaches to recruiting and retaining students.

Many Catholic high schools we have talked with can easily identify the core enrollment issues in their markets – whether those are tuition price, availability of tuition assistance, aging or inadequate facilities, strong local competition, closing of traditional feeder schools, etc. But we haven’t seen a significant shift in recruitment or retention strategies by Catholic high schools.

Let's use a metaphor here: we in Catholic school admissions are good at identifying the icebergs in the water ("We can't get into the public middle schools to promote ourselves"), but not as good at identifying and implementing the new behaviors required to navigate these waters. The “same old, same old” won’t work. For example: while an open house remains on the “must do” list, it does not play the same role in the recruiting process that it did several years ago. Of course, there are many other "old techniques" that are not as effective in today’s market. We all need to adjust.

It begins with attitude. Let's go back to our metaphor: after we identify all of the really bad icebergs out there…let’s stop complaining and do what we must to bring in the ship.

The time is now for Catholic school leaders to step up in bold ways. Never before have we seen the importance of the Catholic educational model – what it brings to the local community, and how it offers students the absolute best opportunities for “whole person” education. And while we at Advancement Partners remain closely engaged with schools in guiding them through proactive strategic plans, capital campaigns, annual funds and board training and development…we are thrilled to also partner with schools these days in helping them secure their healthy enrollment.

Please do not hesitate to reach out with questions or if we can help in any way! Whether your need is for capital or students, for immediate sustainability or long-term health... we can help.

Posted on: February 3, 2021

William J. Acton

William J. Acton

Senior Partner

A graduate of Loyola Academy (Wilmette, IL) and the College of Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), Bill has over 30 years of hands-on experience in organizational advancement, strategic planning, board training and capital campaign management. Prior to beginning his consulting career in 1993, he worked in development for Loyola Academy (running its alumni and annual giving programs) and then for Cardinal Bernardin at the Archdiocese of Chicago, as the first Director of Development for archdiocese’s four-school seminary system and then as the first Director of the Cardinal's Annual Appeal.

Over the past 22 years, Bill has specialized in capital campaign management, major gift solicitation, strategic planning and development operation re-engineering. Partnering with school leaders, he has personally engaged in over 4,500 major gift solicitation calls ranging from $5,000 to $10,000,000.

Bill lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife Sheila. They are members of Old St. Patrick’s Church (Chicago, IL) and the proud parents of two adult daughters, Mary Alice – a development director at a Chicago Catholic grade school – and Margy, a Chicago-based sports physical therapist.