A Virtual Workshop on Catholic School Enrollment, January 28, 2021 - Register Here

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Catholic School Enrollment Trends and Strategies for 2021

Donald Fairholm Donald Fairholm, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners

Bryan Fairholm Bryan Fairholm, Consultant at Advancement Partners

Recruiting and retaining students during the pandemic is incredibly challenging, but more important than ever. Don and Bryan present some enrollment trends, statistics, and strategies.

Don

Hello, I'm Don Fairhom, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners, and welcome to our video blog on enrollment realities and strategies for Catholic high schools. I'm joined today by my nephew and fellow partner, Bryan Fairholm. How you doing, Bryan? Happy new year.

Bryan

Good, Don. Good good to see you, yeah. Happy new year. You know we were maybe off to a little bit of a sluggish start in 2021 but I think you know we're all kind of happy to turn the page on 2020, you know regardless of how it's gone so far in 2021 but, you know I think we're eager to kind of move on to the next chapter and you know obviously it's nice to turn the corner a little bit - get rid of 2020 and and look forward with some optimism for sure.

Don

Yeah that's for sure. So many things in 2020 caused this to pivot and alter our strategy and the delivery of our services you know, at high schools and businesses and certainly here at Advancement Partners. We've made a number of changes. It's been really interesting and and I would say generally we've all managed very well and overcome a lot of adversity. You know we at Advancement Partners, it's very much a personal business face-to-face to a large degree and and we've been doing as so many others have, remote virtual services. We've done feasibility studies, we've done campaign planning, we've done strategic planning, we've done actual solicitations. Many, many solicitations via Zoom that have been very successful. You can never really replace I think one hundred percent that interaction - board meetings and steering committee meetings and what have you - but it's all actually gone quite well under the circumstances and we've had tremendous results.

One of the other things we've done as you know is we've started a series of webinars and workshops. It started with as you well know, we've for I think about 18 years Advancement Partners has held a seminar - a development seminar - for Catholic high school presidents and development directors and annual fund directors at the University of Notre Dame each year in the first week in August and of course in August of 2020 we weren't able to do that. So we had a two-day series of webinars on various different topics that went very very well actually under the circumstances. And then we did several additional between then and the end of the year we did several additional webinars on several different topics including major gift work during this time and running campaigns and what have you. And now we are actually planning, we're going to talk about enrollment, you know challenges and strategies on this call, but we're going to actually hold a one-hour webinar workshop on January 28th at 11 a.m and folks can sign up for it on our website and we think it's going to be a great session and very, very helpful.

Bryan

Yeah, Don. We're really excited about that. You know it's interesting that you know obviously the the pandemic has really impacted the entire education system as a whole. Catholic high schools have been challenged in so many ways - all high schools but certainly Catholic high schools as well. You know, remote learning, schedule changes all those different things that you know - cleaning the place who's gonna you know who's going to school on what days. I know a lot of schools have moved to kind of block scheduling and you know you guys go Tuesday/Thursday or the other half go Monday/Wednesday/Friday or whatever you know figuring out all those logistics and all that, making sure technology works, and making sure all your students have a device. I mean, the challenges are just you know innumerable, so I know Catholic schools have done such great work you know trying to get everything set up and you know have really done a you know a commendable job. And obviously development activities have have also been challenged. You throw a a pandemic into the equation and it really kind of hamstrings your ability to fundraise in a lot of ways. And I think certainly enrollment you know is right there in terms of challenges. As you know Don our business is typically focused on development, fundraising, capital campaigns, annual funds, strategic planning - kind of going around the development world. But it's interesting one of the things that's happened here in the last 10 months or so, you know we're being asked by our clients to give some advice and some input and to help them with enrollment. What can we do with enrollment, you know, as you know it's such a battle in Catholic high schools now for every single student. It's such a competitive marketplace and you know, it's why we decided to help schools and do this video. We want to share our thoughts and help folks with enrollment.

Don

Yeah, well put. So just to set the stage for a few of our additional comments. I thought we'd talk about some of the, you know enrollment trends and statistics in the United States right now. First of all we have 1,188 Catholic high schools in the country. That's been trending downward over several decades, but one of the things we're finding as you know is that the schools that are remaining, that are still in business so to speak that haven't been either consolidated or closed are generally stronger than those on average than that we had uh say 10 and 20 and 30 years ago. There are 535,000 students in those 1,188 Catholic high schools. That's down about five percent versus 2016, in the last four years. The mean number of students per school is 451. We've worked with schools of course of 2,000 and those of 200, but the mean is 451 students. One of the interesting things there when you're talking about of course everyone generally is trying to increase their enrollment. It's a a revenue source and and it's an important metric in all of our Catholic high schools. One of the reasons it's important is because of the need to fill the funding gap, you know, the difference between the actual cost of the education and the revenue that is generated from tuition and fees. What we generally find, we've worked with most of the schools I think the average gap of these 1,188 Catholic high schools is in the 2,000 range, but the larger the schools. the stronger their enrollment, the lower the gap is, and we've actually worked as you know with a handful of schools over many years that have no funding gap, which is amazing.

Bryan

Right.

Don

They tend to be the larger schools. We're not saying that everyone should aspire to be a 1.200 or 1,500 or 2,000 student school - that's not the point - but there is a direct correlation between the number of students and the finances of the school obviously. One of the other really big things that's going on with trending in enrollment is the percentage of non-Catholics in Catholic high schools. And right now that percentage is 23 percent. It was 18 in 2016 so there's been a five percent shift between 2016 and 2020 and the number of non-Catholic students and families. Probably, I don't know, I'm guessing - I don't have statistics on it but 30, 40 years ago that was probably, you know, one percent. Now what's happening there is Catholic high schools, because of the quality of education, the atmosphere and all of the deliverables and the value is really appealing. They are appealing more and more to non-Catholics and more and more public school students are finding that a private school education through Catholic high schools is really valuable for them.

Bryan

Sure, sure - and to that point Don, I know obviously the pandemic has kind of opened some eyes I think in terms of you know some maybe traditional public school families maybe looking at their options and thinking hey you know if Catholic schools are going to be in person as opposed to my public school district, you know just going fully remote with no option for in-person, I think you know there's a little bit of an opportunity there for Catholic high schools to, you know, assert themselves and be an option. And I think, you know just, looking at the country as a whole throughout the last year or so, you know, in terms of the pandemic influence on enrollment it really varies from region to region. It's a very kind of fluid situation really everywhere you look. I had done some research and found that the Archdiocese of Boston I know saw a 15 percent uptick in their Catholic school enrollment. Now I believe that included Catholic elementary school as well so I don't have a firm number for just high schools but I think that speaks to you know families really valuing in-person education. I know Catholic schools, I don't like to generalize but generally speaking Catholic schools have committed to being a little bit more flexible in terms of being both in person and remote, kind of offering both. I think part of the issue is public schools, you know, again I don't like to generalize but I think Catholic schools should be proud of the way they've delivered the education through this pandemic you know compared to some public schools, you know, so I think it's given families a lot to think about and I think it's an opportunity for for Catholic schools to really position themselves and sell themselves as a great alternative.

Don

That's for sure. And that's a that's a good segue into talking about the how important it is to understand what students and parents are looking for - the educational experience at a high school. Particularly, you know, a Catholic high school. As you know, in our processes and campaigns and other work we do extensive surveying on behalf of schools who ask constituents - students, parents, alums, virtually everyone associated with the school - we asked them a series of questions about many different aspects of the school, but one that we ask that's really really important and goes to the issue of understanding enrollment and how to appeal to folks is, you know, what is it about the educational experience that you value most? And we give folks kind of a menu of about 10 different aspects of the education, and we ask them essentially to rank them. And we've been doing this for 25 years - we're about to be 25 years old on April 1st, 2021 - we've been running these surveys and it's very interesting to see the trends and the changes in what's been ranked you know number one, two, three. You know, what is important to folks today is slightly different than it was 5, and 10, and 25 years ago.

For example, the number one feature of a Catholic education at a Catholic high school 30 years ago was undoubtedly the Catholic identity of the school, and no one's suggesting that any of these schools are trying to de-emphasize their Catholic identity - absolutely not - however, it is now often number two and number three in our surveys of what's important. Far and away, universally number one is college preparatory curriculum. That is the most highly valued aspect of the experience that students and parents are looking for at a Catholic high school. Number two is one that has emerged over probably the last 10 years and everyone probably will identify with this and that's safe and secure environment. Not just the physical safety of the of the classroom from violence or what have you, but also the respect and the the way that teachers interact with students and students interact with each other, and that's just a very, very high priority for students and families these days, more so than it ever has been. Catholic identity statistically is number three, and number four is family atmosphere.

You know that's what people - whether they're looking for a 2,000 student school a student school or a 200 student school, they're really looking for a community where all the kids are really getting individualized attention and are really treated well and we're paying attention to them and no one's following between the cracks and parents get to know each other and the faculty. It's much more difficult to do in a public school with three or four thousand kids which is not uncommon in our country as you know - nothing against those public schools, but it's very, very difficult to have that that close-knit community family atmosphere that over and over and over again we see as highly valuable and can be marketed as you try to appeal to more and more students.

Bryan

Yeah, certainly Don. You know, great points there and you know I think you're kind of speaking towards, you know, what is it that Catholic schools deliver. What do we deliver as a Catholic school that maybe our competition doesn't. Understanding what you have that the public schools don't have, and it's really understanding what you have maybe versus other Catholic schools as well. You know, understanding where you fit in. Hey is that school maybe it's a Catholic school, public school, you know are they maybe better at athletics. Is that their main focus is that what drives students there? You know, you understand where kind of you fit in in your in your community. I think, you know, that's that's a critical element. Kind of understanding your strengths, and understanding your weaknesses. Where can we improve the most, what kind of, you know, what kind of macro demographic influences are there too? Understanding, you know obviously the population around you are we in a growing community, how are we doing compared to the national scale? Where do we sit, and just understanding all those factors that really have a strong influence on enrollment. You need to kind of nail those down, which leads to my next point of - do you have a strategic plan? You know, the strategic planning process kind of gives you that 30,000 foot view if you will. You know, to kind of sit back and say hey where are we great, where do we need to improve, where are we really weak, and understanding our competition and kind of figuring all these things out and coming up with a game plan for admissions, and for fundraising, and all the other things you need to be worried about. Coming up with that game plan, the strategic plan, really kind of kind of helps you with that.

Don

I really enjoy the process of facilitating strategic plans just maybe for the reason you're talking about because of course a strategic plan, facilitating it, there's many different components. One of the things in the marketing and enrollment - the portion of the strategic planning on that topic - we really as you know work with schools to try to for them to really identify what their unique competitive advantage is. Clearly those 1,188 Catholic high schools in the United States have a lot in common. Certainly they have their Catholic identity even though they may have different orders and different histories and what have you, but they're they're all Catholic. They all of course profess to provide students with college preparatory curriculum and, you know, they all have certain commonalities, but it's what's different about your school that you need to search for. What is what are you trying to do that you think would really appeal to those that you are trying to attract for increasing your enrollment.

Are you particularly strong as you point out in certain areas. STEM is a huge area of concern for parents and students these days for obvious reasons. Guidance is a massive issue - we hear that over and over and over again. Parents who have complaints about Catholic high schools often talk about they don't feel they're getting enough in the guidance area. Are you small or large. What's your enrollment right now and how does that go to what you do particularly different than your competitors. So many times as you know we see schools trying to tell their customer base, their prospective students and families all of the things that they do. And you have to do that to a certain degree, but we encourage folks to really understand your unique competitive advantage and really market that effectively so that your brand becomes so well known in the community that it attracts those that are that are very interested in in what you do particularly well.

Bryan

Yeah, exactly Don. Well said, and I think creating that effective messaging is just so critical and you know the two words that that we always think of with this, you know - consistency, repetition. Let's be consistent across all of our communication whether it be the brochure that you hand out to folks, whether it be in your campaign materials, whether it's in your annual fund materials, on social media, on your website, what your teachers and staff are telling folks out in the community. It's really critical that you kind of have that consistent message. Let's make sure we've honed in on kind of our strengths and who we are as a brand and that's what we're promoting to folks. I think that's just critical to be, again, consistent and repetitive in your messaging. I think that makes, you know, all the difference in the world.

Don

Sure. Another big trend that you know we've seen over time, and it can't be really captured with metrics, but it's the importance and the amount of time that school leadership and the staffing requirements and the staffing focus and the resources allocated to the admissions and enrollment function. Again, now, I don't know, 30 years ago, most Catholic high schools were very solid. They had, in many cases, a waiting list. Their feeder school system was very healthy, and they didn't really need to work as hard on the admissions process and marketing their school and competing for students. That has changed dramatically over time, and one the reasons why the president principal model has become more and more common is because there is a need - a growing need - for the leadership of the school to focus more on, it's not just your admissions director that needs to be focused on activities. Clearly they do, but the head of school, the president, the principal - whatever model you have - you need to be devoting a certain percentage of your time to being out on the front lines, talking to students, talking to prospective families, and really selling your school.

That's a very different dynamic than it was, you know 20 and 30 years ago, and so critical. We talk about you know, you know what I'm going to say, we talk about the admissions director function maybe in the past was a little bit more of a fill position and now it is undoubtedly a skill position. You have to find the right person with the right background and the right skill set. I'm sure throughout many years there have been great people in admissions, but now the importance and the responsibility of the sales function within a school is so heightened that you really need to invest in the proper resources. Not only at that level of admissions director but also any support staff that are that are needed. You have to be doing so much to attract new students that you better be organized properly and really devoting the right staff to it.

Bryan

Yeah, yeah, and to that point Don, just talk about devoting the right staff, I mean your marketing and website person has got to be critical in this too. You and I both know a lot of times Catholic school websites can be a little bit, a little bit old school feeling so I would emphasize make sure, you know as a Catholic school you're kind of investing in that and making sure your website looks good. Because I tell you, you know especially in this pandemic atmosphere your website is all of a sudden kind of the front door to your school in a lot of ways. That's where folks are going to go to get information. You know, how much video do you have on there? I think the use of video, and we we use video a lot, Don, with our campaigns, you know obviously kind of tends to set an emotional tone for a campaign. And you can use video so effectively uh to connect folks to kind of the feel and the look of your school I think. make sure you have some video content on your website I think it's critical.

And again with the pandemic, you know, that's sort of changed thenature of how we are able to recruit. Traditionally the open house days right where you get bring kids in from the elementary schools around the area, and they're able to kind of shadow the high schoolers. I mean that that's typically what we hear as the most effective sort of recruiting tool that many many Catholic high schools use. Well, that's not happening this you know this year probably not likely to happen until maybe the fall of 2021 so, you know, in the meantime you know I think it's really, really smart to to make sure you have virtual access to your building. Show folks, you know, if you're having your students in person you know hey put that on video, promote that, that you're you're learning in person and really give folks a good feel for for your school. I think using your website in video content in particular - critical, critical. A critical component of an effective enrollment strategy.

Don

Yeah, yeah - well said. So there are, and just to kind of, wrap up. There are so many other key aspects of enrollment strategy of course. You know you have to understand your metrics and your trend line. Where have you been, where are you now, where are you going, where are your opportunities - geographically, demographically. Using volunteers effectively is a whole topic we could spend days on. Connecting with the right feeder markets, having a formalized plan. My gosh, having a written, formalized plan with goals - short and long-term goals - however you see the opportunities. All of these issues we're going to address when we have our webinar workshop on January 28th at 11 a.m eastern time.

It's only fifty dollars, nominal fee - I'm sure you'll find the value tremendous, so we're going to address all those issues. We're also going to have a guest speaker - I won't announce who it is, but we will be letting you know about that. But we have already confirmed someone to be a guest speaker who I think everyone will get a lot of value out of it. She's a current admissions director for an all-girl school that has very effectively grown their enrollment over time in a very competitive market, and has some great ideas. You mentioned video, Bryan, she has some very creative things that their school has done using video to overcome some of the obstacles that the pandemic has caused and so we'll have her say a few words and answer questions.

And of course the workshop as you know from our previous workshops, they're intended to be very interactive. Yes we'll do somepresentation material and share the screen on the Zoom call, but we have plenty of opportunity for question and answers and sharing ideas. These schools will be spread out across the country so it almost never happens that there are two schools in the same market, so you don't really have to worry about that, but I think it's going to be very effective. As you mentioned earlier, we're being asked more and more to provide assistance and guidance and consulting services in the area of enrollment which is new to our company, but we have very defined thoughts and opinions about it and we've put together this one-hour webinar workshop on January 28th that we think is going to be particularly useful no matter how you're doing with your enrollment. There's always an idea or two that you'll be able to get from it. So on that note we'll we'll wrap up. Thanks everyone for listening in as long as they did, and we're hopeful that uh you'll join us on January 28th, and uh have a great rest of the week and great year. Happy new year to everyone and, look forward to seeing you in the future.

Bryan

All right, thanks Don. Look forward to seeing everybody, take care.


Posted on: January 11, 2021


Donald Fairholm

Donald Fairholm

Senior Partner


Don is a graduate of Loyola High School (Montreal, QC) and earned a BBA from the University of Notre Dame in 1978. Prior to joining Advancement Partners ten years ago, Don had a successful business career as both a General Manager and Vice President of Sales. As a Senior Partner with Advancement Partners, Don has facilitated strategic planning projects, conducted feasibility studies, managed capital campaigns, assisted schools in preparing effective Development Plans, and created or enhanced Annual Funds.

Over the past 10 years, Don has worked with dozens of schools all across the country, implementing best practices for improved revenue streams and stronger donor relationships. Having personally engaged in over 1,000 personal solicitation calls, Don’s passion is to identify and promote each school's unique competitive characteristics.Don lives in Coral Springs, Florida with his wife, Debbie. They have three adult sons, Adam, Derek, and Sean, who all attended Catholic high schools.

don@advancementpartners.com

Bryan Fairholm

Bryan Fairholm

Consultant


Bryan is a graduate of Bishop Watterson High School (Columbus, OH) and Loyola University Chicago. After graduation, he worked briefly in sales before returning to Loyola University Chicago School of Law where he earned his J.D. with a concentration in tax law.

Prior to joining Advancement Partners, Bryan worked for two years as a consultant in the field of State and Local Tax working with clients on a variety of issues including income tax compliance, sales and use tax voluntary disclosure agreements, and sales and use tax audit defense services.

Bryan’s development career began as an intern for Advancement Partners in marketing, client development and the annual summer seminar. Since becoming a full-time consultant with Advancement Partners, he has worked with clients on strategic planning, feasibility studies and capital campaign execution.

Bryan lives in Chicago, IL and enjoys playing hockey, golf, and running.

bryan@advancementpartners.com