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Catholic School Enrollment Trends and Predictions for the Future
Connor Gleason

Catholic school leaders deserve a huge high-five. You’ve weathered COVID-19 with grace and are still committed to growing and sustaining your school in years to come. With that said, it’s time to prepare for the next enrollment season so you can crush your goals. One great way to get started is by learning from school leaders like you. 

In our recent Fireside Chat, we sat down with three Catholic school leaders to hear how they found success in the past year and how they’re planning for the future. We talked about hot topics like recruitment, retention, events, and future trends. Watch the full webinar on-demand, or read on for a few key takeaways. 

Meet the Panelists

Catholic School Enrollment Trends Meet the Panelists

Erin Riggs: Erin is the Associate Director of Admissions at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tennessee. Ryan High School is a Diocesan co-ed Catholic school serving around 900 students.

Laura Mooney: Laura is the Director of Enrollment Management for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. She works with all of the diocese elementary schools and high schools on enrollment. The Diocese encompasses around 40 elementary schools and 18 high schools.

Anna Taul: Anna is the Director of Admissions at Cathedral High School located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Cathedral High School is a co-ed Holy Cross school with just over 1,000 students. 

Looking Back On Lessons Learned

Q: How has COVID-19 affected your school this year and how have you adapted? 

Anna: We’re very blessed that we’ve been able to pretty much be at full blast. We went with a model of four days a week. Our classes ran Tuesday through Frida with the exception of one County enforced shutdown around the holidays. It’s definitely been a roller coaster. We have a lot to be thankful for because being in-person has allowed us to retain some sense of normal, even within our admissions team, which is of course a beautiful way to serve our families. 

Laura: We have been in-person all year with five-day-a-week instruction across all of our schools. Families have had the option to go virtual if they wanted to be. We started out the year with 25% of our families virtual and 75% in person. And we’ve just gained more in-person and less virtual as the year has gone on. Most of our elementary schools have one, maybe two people, in charge of enrollment, marketing, et cetera. Our high schools typically have about two people on those teams. I get the 30,000-foot view. And while I’m not in the trenches each and every day, I’m talking to a lot of people in the trenches and hear about all of the different situations across our schools. 

Erin: We have also been really fortunate to be in person all year, and we have had zero days virtually. So it’s been a great year for our school. We did offer a virtual option for some of our students, but most of them chose to come in person, and even at the times when we allow them to change those decisions, they’ve come back. 

Q: If you could talk to yourself back in March, April, or May of last year, what would you say?

Laura: First I would tell myself that it’s going to be okay. There was a lot of fear. At least for me, I fear the unknown. And then I would also tell myself to be ready to adapt really quickly and roll with the punches. I am a huge planner so I like to have things mapped out six, nine, twelve months in advance. And when COVID hit, I started erasing all my plans and planning out the year again. And then a month later I would find things would look completely different. I think this year has taught me, always look a month or two in advance, but keep the idea filed away in the back of your head that in a month or two things could be completely different again. So be flexible and ready to change.

Anna: I would reassure myself at this time last year that there would be a lot of good changes in this season and to appreciate the silver linings. I would tell myself that this season will essentially crack open the idea of “we’ve always done it this way” and give you the chance to do it a new way. Our biggest takeaway and the biggest fruit of this year is we really went back to the basics on a lot of levels with one-on-one tours and meeting families and it allowed us to form better relationships in some cases. For example, we could tailor the campus tour toward a student that loves theater or is excited about STEM.

Catholic School Enrollment Trends Phone and Laptop

Q: How are you changing the way you’re marketing and how are you putting your value proposition in front of your families differently this year than in the past?

Laura: A lot of our shift has been towards digital marketing and using social media and Google ad words this year. In a normal year, we would do both with more of an emphasis on social media and not as much on Google but we swapped it this year.

Many families were searching for private school options, or terms like “Catholic schools near me,” so the return we were able to see on Google ads was just really astronomical among our schools. Search engine optimization has really never been more important. 

“Our admissions team consists of four people but we’re always trying to rebrand to say the admissions team actually consists of everyone. The parents, students, all educators, staff, and anyone wearing a Cathedral sweatshirt is part of the team. We’re always trying to push that culture forward.”

Anna Taul, Director of Admissions, Cathedral High School

Anna: At the start of COVID, we were exiting one branding strategy coming off of an anniversary and heading into a new tagline and new marketing direction as an entire school. We shifted our new tagline to focus more on the situation or challenges we were facing. Our tagline is “Cathedral greatness is calling” and all of a sudden that became a motiving factor and a charge for everyone to come together, step up to this, keep working, and keep being there. We even pushed that message out in our internal marketing to students of “Wear your mask, you have to be there for each other, you have to stay together. This is helping us all meet our mission.”

The other theme we’ve focused on in marketing messaging for our transfer students coming for tours or applying is a message of stability and consistency. As much as we could we wanted to show them what that looks like at Cathedral. We showed them what they were headed towards. 

Erin: We changed our marketing strategies two or three years ago, and we’re always fine-tuning them. We really, really, really focused on personalization this year. And I think that’s where Schooladmin has come into play for our department tremendously.

“When we made the move over to SchoolAdmin, we were able to set up a communication strategy so that every single person gets information and messaging specific to them and their interests. When a family fills out an inquiry and says they’re interested in the arts, they receive an email from the head of our visual performing arts department, introducing them to the programs. Or if they fill out an application and select baseball as an interest, a few days later they’ll receive an email from our baseball coach, letting them know more about that specific sport and opening that dialogue up sooner than ever before. It’s been amazing and reduced manual work from our physical day-to-day.”

Erin Riggs, Associate Director of Admissions, Father Ryan High School 

We have more than doubled the number of tours that we’ve given this year. There was no possible way that amount of activity outside of the physical office would have ever happened without SchoolAdmin because we were buried in paperwork. There are two of us on the admissions team and we manage about 350 applications in a given year. It’s a lot of follow-up and phone calls. For each of those families to feel loved and known without us having to manually press send on each email, and for communications to be sent at an appropriate time for them, has been tremendous for our office. 

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The Future of Events

Q: How are you as a Catholic school, or as a Diocese, balancing in-person versus hybrid events? What does the fall look like?

Laura: We’re doing a mix of both. We are doing virtual fairs to promote our high schools and have been able to add more as a result of them being virtual. We’ll do some this spring and some in the fall. It’s a really great way for families to get that introductory taste to see what high schools they’re actually interested in and actually want to learn more about. For the in-person events that our schools are holding, they’re going to be a little bit on the smaller end. We have moved away from big open houses. Now you can get an express tour and we’re doing a lot more outdoor-based events like walking tours. 

Anna: Even our counseling office has said they’re always going to offer virtual parent nights. Our virtual attendance was so much higher than in-person events in the past. The return was so much higher with those webinars. I definitely still see us offering a virtual option. Another big focus for us is putting our students front and center. A lot of our student organizations couldn’t meet in the same way this past year. However, they could help with the events our team hosts. We saw student leaders step up and volunteer to be panelists and help with various events. That’s definitely something that is both impressive to parents, because they love to hear from the high school students, and also really important for prospective students to see.

Erin: We did an event audit early on and said, what are the goals of each of these events? How can we do these in person and what is okay to move virtual? Fortunately, we were able to do our preview day in person. But rather than gathering everybody all together for a keynote, we had them separated. They essentially arrived, had their own class schedule if you will, and started the day in various classrooms, Then they did the keynote through our virtual learning. 

For in-person events, like our trick-or-treat parade, we get our parent ambassadors on board to help with managing more people, taking temperature scans, and making sure everyone is wearing a mask. We couldn’t do it without them. Our parents have been instrumental in keeping our school open and keeping our events successful. We’ve moved more informational sessions virtual. We just try to meet families where they are and focus on ways we can build connections and relationships.

Catholic School Enrollment Trends Magnifying glass

Zeroing in on Retention 

Q: How are you addressing the fact that some people may not stick around for various reasons? What are you doing?

Laura: We’re really focusing on ambassador programs at our schools to make sure that all of these new families are orientated correctly so that they will stay beyond the 21-22 school year. A few quick overarching tips we have for our ambassador programs are to select the families you want, rather than just asking for volunteers, because some families may volunteer that you don’t necessarily want to be ambassadors. And depending on how many new kids you have and where they are, you can either make one captain per grade level, or you can match the families one one-to-one. 

We also host an event in the summer where all of the new families and their ambassadors can come together. That will be an opportunity for them to meet their ambassador, but also to meet the other new families that they could potentially connect with and get to know. Our parent ambassadors then reach out to new families at least once a month on a more informal basis. That could be anything from giving them a call or sending them a text.

At least once every trimester we have ambassadors make a more formal outreach whether it’s a zoom coffee invite, or actually meeting for coffee or lunch, so families intentionally get together. You can have your ambassadors report back to the admissions director with how the interactions are going so that there is that accountability.

“We challenge our admissions directors to hold feedback sessions for their ambassadors where they can get together and share ideas for connecting with families and relay any feedback they’ve been given so we can stay on top of our new families and make them feel welcome. It also gives us a chance to see if there are any issues that are bubbling up, so we can stay in front of those and be proactive and retain them for the upcoming year.” 

Laura Mooney, Director of Enrollment Management, Archdiocese of Baltimore

Anna: We’re going to be offering freshmen book clubs for our required summer reading and an opportunity for them to get a few service hours taken care of ahead of the school year. We sent out a survey to our incoming families to ask them what we can do to help in this transition. And the social piece for both students and parents quickly was at the very top of the list. We’re inviting families to campus, especially our sophomore class and their families so they can feel part of the campus. 

Erin: There’s been a changing landscape regarding our school for the past five years. We are drawing in students from more and more different places. We’ve implemented quite a few programs to serve them. We still have a new student orientation, but at the end of their first week, we also have a freshmen retreat. This is a time for freshmen to come on campus, learn about traditions, play games, and get to know their house. They are put in groupings according to their house and mentor group, which meets every day. 

During the school year, we also have a freshmen seminar course that every single freshman takes. It’s a key time for them to get together and learn about each other and the school. We also have mentor groups that meet every day for 20 minutes. The only goal and the only rule for those meetings is relationship building. Every single person on campus has a group. Besides relationship building, those groups give us a pulse on the kids at our school. We know where they are at and how they’re feeling. 

Q: How do you work with your retention teams on exit strategies? What happens when a student withdraws?

Laura: For our schools, retention is a very big focus. But retention is already looking a lot stronger than in a normal year because our families feel how strong the demand is for our schools. They don’t want to give up their spots because they know if they give up their spot, it will be immediately filled. Whereas in past years they felt they could decide at the last minute if they wanted to come back or not. What we are concerned about in terms of retention is all of the families that we accepted this school year returning for the upcoming year. We are nervous that they’re going to withdraw before the start of the year as public schools continue to announce all of their reopening plans. 

[Download our Retention Toolkit for more retention tips and tricks.]

We have really encouraged our schools to tighten up their contracts, and give earlier deadlines. One school set a deadline of May 1st. If you withdrew before May 1st, you could be refunded any tuition for the upcoming year. But if you withdraw anytime in May or June, you’re responsible for 25% of tuition. And then 50% before the first day of school, and November 1st, 75%. My advice would be to be mindful of families that apply to your school as a safety net rather than seeing it as a real decision to attend.

“Our enrollment has gone extremely well this year. I think that is also due to SchoolAdmin. We set up a communication strategy surrounding enrollment, and we had not done that before. Before we sent simple messages but now it’s a beautifully worded message saying “We’re so happy you’re returning, these are all the things that have happened this year, these are the things we’re looking forward to, we can’t wait for you to be here, turn X in by this date.” Our email strategy has dramatically changed the responses from parents.”

Erin Riggs, Associate Director of Admissions, Father Ryan High School 

Erin: We have a similar contract. Families have through the first week of March to let us know their decision. Then if a family decides to withdraw, they can do so before May 1st and only lose the registration fee. But if they withdraw after May 1st, they are on the hook for the entire school year. And there’s no 25% or 75%. This is due to the fact that we’re hiring and we’re planning for a school year with X number of students, so we need the tuition payments to fund all of that. And it’s very difficult to plan when we don’t know who’s going to be in our building. It’s not to be a disservice to the families. It’s really just to set our own students and families up for the best possible year. 

Watch the full Fireside Chat for more tips, tricks, and ideas to help you prepare for the next enrollment season and crush your goals.

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