COVID-19 Public School Refugees: Will They Stay?

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Across the United States, Christian school enrollment is up – often way up – as a consequence of parents fleeing significant problems in public schools. 

Here’s a question on the mind of many Christian school leaders:

Will COVID public school refugees stay at my school long-term? 

I can think of five ways to assess this. Fair warning – three of them involve our Parent Satisfaction and Referral Survey.

Method #1

Ask them.

You don’t need our survey to ask parents if: (1) They have all their age-eligible children enrolled at your school, (2) If they are going to re-enroll next year, or (3) Are they planning on staying for the long run.

The behavioral economists would point out that merely asking someone about their likelihood of purchase is risky – particularly for big-ticket items. 

There is significant danger in merely asking is that parents will tell you “what you want to hear.” Or their answer is aspirational – you might not have choices for “We sure hope so,” or “If I get that new job I will.” 

Or when you ask, they don’t know. They are waiting to see what will happen in public schools. Maybe they are with you because of public schools, and not really on the merits of your school.

Method #2

Find out the behavioral economist way

Your average behavioral economist would tell you that to really assess intents, somehow there has to be money involved. The overall goal will be to use money to settle the issue in the minds of your potentially wandering parent.

How would you do that?

First, I would use escalating re-enrollment fees to get as early a re-enrollment decision as you can from parents. Think January, with your first escalation February 1st.  We recommend two escalations of the re-enrollment fee for current parents, X if enrolled before Feb. 1, 2X if before May 1, and 3X after that.

Also, if a family pays a semester or year in advance, make it worth it to them – 3% – 4% is reasonable given higher inflationary pressure. I would make this non-refundable. Obviously, if they have paid in advance, they are much less likely to leave you. 

(This is the year to raise your pay in advance discount – and not just because of inflation.)

Method #3

Compare the scores of your own parents who are “New” and “Old”.

I did this with over 50,000 respondents from our Parent Satisfaction and Referral Survey and was not very pleased with the result. My theory was that newer parents would be less culturally engrained than longer-enrolled parents. But in what way?

The answer was that new parents saw all the Christian elements as LESS important than longer-enrolled parents, and nothing else came close. The importance of Christian character development, Christian environment, teachers as Christian role models, Bible / Religion – all of these were significantly less important to new parents.

If you think about this, this is really bad news for retaining our public-school refugees. For practically all Christian schools, everything Christian is the outstanding strength. It is the Christian school’s key competitive advantage over public schools, which will never do character very well. Yes, never. 

Everything Christian is also the most important and needful thing that parents can give their children. Over time, Christian school parents understand this, and naturally rate all the Christ-centered program elements as more important. 

So, either they came around to this way of thinking, or the ones who didn’t feel that way simply left. Which circles us back to our central question. 

Keep in mind that most of the data on newly- versus longer-enrolled parents analyzed here was collected BEFORE COVID-19.  Ask yourself: Did my public school parents come to us largely over academic concerns? If the answer to that is yes, then this problem is only worse.

A comparison report of new vs longer enrolled parents is now part of our Advanced Parent Satisfaction and Referral Survey.

Method #4

Determine re-enrollment intent subconsciously by comparing your parents’ answers to program element questions against the profile of “No” parents.

After 15 years of the survey, we have thousands of parents who indicated either: (1) They are not coming back, or (2) They do not have all their age-eligible children enrolled. Comparing the patterns of these “No” parents to our “Yes” parents, we are in the process of determining what variables and scores seem to be most correlated with becoming a “No” parent.  

We will include this as part of the comparison report in Method #3. Do certain enrollment durations, such as less than 2 years, better fit the profile of “No” parents? If so, then Houston we have a problem! 

This approach helps you consider whether a given group, such as your COVID refugees, are more or less likely to stay. It depends on us asking the right questions, and really can’t be used on a case-by-case basis.

Is there a way around these limitations? Is there a way to tap into parents’ unconscious minds that does not depend on what program aspects we asked about, and can be scored case by case? 

Actually, we think so. Welcome to the frontier.

Method #5

Consider the words they say. 

In our database, we have over 200,000 combined answers to the three standard open-ended questions we ask. Using the constructs we developed in our internal research – and going with additional constructs suggested by the words and phrases themselves, we will soon be able to categorize comments by construct – response by response. 

This sounds impossible, but consider that after eliminating words like “a,” “an,” “and,” the”, there are just over 2,000 words that comprise 95% of responses by word frequency. So far, a little over half of these can be categorized by construct based on the plain, common meaning of the word. This opens up the possibility of making meaningful quantitative data out of open-ended responses.

Let me explain why that matters

Perhaps there are quantitative questions we simply do not know to ask – or would be too hard to ask because of survey length. We ask our open-ended questions at the beginning of the survey, before our survey-taker sees a single program element. There is no “priming the pump” from us whatsoever. 

What that means is the parent can say whatever they want to say to wide-open questions like: “Why did you rate us (in overall satisfaction) the way you did?” Or “What suggestions for improvement do you have?” Like the movie, they can say anything. Anything that is top of mind to them.

Thus, based on the words that people say, in Method #5 we are building a profile of “No” parents that we think can be used to judge, case-by-case, whether you have parents who are leaning “No.” Even if they don’t know it themselves. We think we can do this, and we’re giving it the “ole’ college try.” 

As we have all experienced, it is our subconscious minds, not our rational selves, that often determine the decisions we make. If you know the metaphor, the subconscious elephant is plodding along, and the rider is working up the justification for where the elephant wants to go. (Which helps explain some of the non-sensical answers parents give you as to why they are not returning.)

It Really Matters

Today I talked with a Christian school that grew during Covid from enrollment in the 80s to full capacity at 172. They are looking to move to a larger facility that will double their rent payment.

Should they do it?

The only way to really know is that we have to ask the elephants. We have to understand if parents’ passions about Christian education are congruent with our own – or if they are simply waiting out public schools return to “normalcy”. 

Our Advanced Parent Satisfaction & Referral Survey offers insights to help school leaders make better decisions and avoid surprises. We recently reduced the price of our surveys — making the Advanced Survey more affordable than ever.

If you have questions or want to conduct a survey for your school send us a message or call me directly (719) 278-9600 ext 100.

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