In talking to schools at our summer focus group, we learned that many are concerned with how they can “compete with free” as prospective families feel increasingly financially stretched and wonder how they can afford tuition or annual fund donations — especially when they have great public schools that are “free” nearby. Millennials, a growing group of prospective families, feel especially concerned with affordability, as they have more debt and lower incomes than previous generations.
In this first installation of our blog series “Competing with Free,” we spoke to Northwest Catholic High School to learn how they stay competitive and successful when competition is perceived to be free.
Northwest Catholic High School School Profile
Enrollment: 525 students
Annual Fund: $1.4 Million
In the Finalsite Family since: 2007
For Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, having to compete with public schools is a growing challenge. The town’s highly-ranked public school system coupled with high property taxes (around $7,000 a year for a mid-market home) and a depressed state economy mean many prospective families balk at the school’s $14,900 tuition.
This challenge isn’t unique to Connecticut, although the state has received a lot of press about its challenges. A high cost of living, stagnant to low-growth wages in many fields of work, and the prospect of growing college tuition worry many along with the dual challenges of a demographic dip and different expectations of millennial parents mean independent schools nationwide report they are working harder than ever to reach full enrollment each year.
“We have a stretched middle class, and large employers have left our area in recent years,” said Maureen Scudder, the NWC’s Director of Communications, speaking about the departures of General Electric and others from the state.
“That said, our school is lucky to have a compelling, new website, a powerful brand, and loyal alumni and parents who help spread positive word of mouth that helps us when economic times are rough,” she shared. “We’re fully enrolled, have excellent retention rates, and every metric compares positively with our peer schools in the area.”
The school’s longtime client success manager Anthony Tata shared that their redesign came at a great time. “Their site was outdated and was no longer the best representation for the school,” he said. “In this day and age when school websites are very important for prospective parents, the website redesign is critical for meeting school enrollment goals. This latest redesign upgraded from Page Manager to Composer and provided a powerful platform for videos, making for an amazing site.”
In addition to their new site, the school credits three areas that are key to their success, despite economic and demographic challenges around them.
They Draw Upon Their Loyal Alumni and Parent Bases
Word of mouth is often cited as the key to all schools’ success, and NWC excels in this area. With more than 8,000 alumni who have graduated from the school since 1965, many of whom are still in Connecticut, and current faculty that includes 20 staffers from the past five decades, NWC has “exceptionally positive word of mouth, and very loyal alumni and past parents in the surrounding area,” Maureen said.
This helps raise their profile as a good alternative to public schools and helps to grow enrollment, she says, as graduates step out to sporting events in their NWC spirit wear, talk to their neighbors and fellow parishioners about the school, and are out and about in the community talking up the school.
Their website also highlights graduates’ success stories, from radio producers and bankers to doctors, business people and those who serve in nonprofits and on state boards. All credit their NWC education for guiding them not only academically, but spiritually as well.
Keeping alumni connected to the school is crucial, and NWC shares information on reunions, alumni guest speakers, and in their “Stay Connected” site section. They keep the site current to encourage alumni to visit frequently. For example,in honor of the recent Veterans’ Day holiday, the school listed all of their alumni who are veterans.
They incorporate a popular video on the site, “You Know You Went to Northwest Catholic When…” that shares graduates’ memories of everything from bagels in the cafeteria to memories of former faculty, helping to connect them back to the school and the website.
Parents also have a site section just for them, and use a portal to stay connected to the school calendar as well as important forms and events. “Parents are an essential part of our community, and we want the website to welcome them and make them feel included in everything we do. Giving our community a great experience on our site makes families feel even more positively about our school, further perpetuating that great word of mouth and showing what we have to offer versus public schools in the area.” Maureen said.
Their Communications Speak To Prospective Parents’ Pains and Future Students’ Concerns
With more than half of their students receiving financial aid, significantly higher than the national average for day schools, Northwest Catholic spreads the word on its website and social media to allay families’ fears that they’ll have to pay the full amount of tuition. “We share that NWC is the best value in the area for their students’ education,” Maureen said. “While other schools’ tuitions range from $30,000-$50,000 for day students, NWC’s families are paying $14,900, and 52% of those families receive tuition assistance.”
Their new website clearly organizes information for prospective families and directly answers the public vs private question answering the question, “Why should I go to NWC instead of my public school?”
And, their new site features video as a way to engage every constituency. Especially meaningful are the videos aimed at prospective students, such as “Welcome to Northwest Catholic” and “Every Student Has a Story.”
Additionally, they promote that the school is among the most diverse in the state, with more than 30% students of color and a representation of nearly 50 towns, something that neither their private school competitors or local public schools can say, said Maureen.
They Show the Value of a Family’s Investment
NWC’s 2018 seniors were given nearly $4.5 million in merit aid from colleges and universities, something that the school highlights on their financial aid and college section, helping to ease families’ concerns about their financial future. “This fact about merit-based aid sets us apart,” said Maureen. “We recognize the huge sacrifice families are making and show that we’re laying the foundation for their children’s future. We want NWC families to know that an education here prepares students for college and beyond, for a life of faith and service.”
Small Acts Change the World, a video on NWC’s site, shows the difference that small gestures and kindness can make on a community.
Ultimately, Maureen shared, “The families who come to our school are the right fit and our retention is excellent. While we’re feeling the demographic dip and the challenges that surround us that everyone in independent schools is talking about, our future is very bright.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hadley is Finalsite's Director of Communications and is a former independent school teacher, fundraiser and marketing director with a passion for cooking, travel, and spending time outdoors with her growing family. She founded the FinalsiteFM podcast network and enjoys meeting Finalsite clients from around the world.