If You Didn’t Grow This Year, What’s Wrong?

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News reports and anecdotal evidence show that most Christian schools around the United States have higher 2022-2023 enrollments, due to ongoing issues with public schools.

If that is you – your enrollment is up for ‘22/’23 — you can profitably read this blog to do even better in ‘23/’24.

If that is not you – your enrollment was flat or lower in ‘22/’23 – please accept the following advice from someone who has worked exclusively with Christian schools (840+) like yours since 2006.

Owning the Responsibility

First things first: Whether your school grows or not is still largely up to you. We partnered with Christian schools that grew during the great recession of 2007-2009. We’ve partnered with schools that were the only ones growing in areas of the country with unfavorable demographics. Of course, public school missteps during COVID certainly helped us all, but I know of schools that even now are struggling to grow. It’s still 75% what you do vs 25% what is going on around you.

Another really important idea is that you cannot make cause and effect statements based on your overall enrollment number. The same is true of the difference in the number of students between your first and graduating classes.

For example, it really doesn’t help your school to say that your overall enrollment numbers are down because “families moved out of the area.” There’s likely a grain of truth to that, but in reality, you didn’t close and generate enough good leads to replace the students you lost in this way. 

Remember – you are serving just a small fraction of available students in your area, and there remains far more than enough families who would be grateful for their children to be at your school. This probably means there were more optimal ways to offer financial aid that could have increased both your student numbers – and your school’s net tuition income.

Determining the Causal Factors For Grow / No Grow 

To determine causal factors of why your school did or did not grow this year, six separate growth levers must be evaluated – 3 short-term and 3 long-term. 

The short-term growth levers are: 1) retaining more students, 2) closing more leads, 3) generating more (good) leads. And BTW, that is the correct order of priority for limited time and resources.

The three long-term growth levers, in priority order, are: 1) correct tuition and financial aid procedures, 2) develop strong program quality, and 3) create a brand while casting a vision that truly differentiates.

To really understand why you did or did not grow, you must go beyond surface thinking. For example, it is not good enough to simply report the total number or percentage of students not returning. You have to split these into two groups: (1) withdrawals you could do nothing about (they did move out the area), and (2) withdrawals having to do with dissatisfaction/concerns about your school. 

The latter is actionable, both longer-term and even when they are close to leaving. To use our previous example, if we conclude that our school enrollment or retention losses are largely due to families moving out of the area, we miss opportunities to solve problems related to the ones that are “on us” in (2). 

Practically, from a systems point of view, you have to both track and intervene with these families “as you go.” If you are an educator, you might recognize this as a classic “locus of control” problem. At GraceWorks, we spend a lot of time helping schools understand the enrollment problems they can actually do something about – and those are many indeed.

In closing leads, surface thinking says: “Eighty percent of our visiting families enroll … How can you improve on that, right?” It reminds me of a school, who, when I asked the secretary, told me that one of every ten people who reached out to the school actually ended up visiting. (A true story!) For you eighty percenters, consider that at this particular school, where nearly 100% of visitors ended up enrolling!

So the first step is to figure out, in the case of this particular school, how to get about 7 times more prospects to actually visit. That in fact is the lead metric for generating more leads – a good lead is one where the family visits at least once.

Evaluating Your Enrollment Closing Effectiveness

In evaluating your enrollment closing effectiveness, the correct bottom line is: the total number of students enrolled divided by the total number of students represented by prospects – prospects who may or may not have visited. That percent for most Christian schools is 20-25%. For our clients, it is over 40%.

With this kind of thinking, you realize that you could improve the procedures that cause more families to visit. That might have to do with the enrollment closing process itself, such as whether your prospective family feels that visiting your school will likely result in a less-than-pleasant sales experience. 

If you can figure out an enrollment process that doesn’t feel like selling to our newbie parents, that would be good, yes? They might be more likely to visit, do you think? In fact, it might even be empowering. And GraceWorks has done just that – about twenty-five 15-minute lessons on the enrollment closing process from beginning to end. Everything you need to roughly double your bottom-line closing average.

Another empowering way to think about this same problem: Prioritize lead generation activities that result in GOOD leads – leads that actually visit. One of our clients was engaged with an internet lead company (Facebook / Google) that was generating 4-5 leads a week, all a relative bargain at $1250 a month. You can guess what the problem was, right? Couldn’t get those many leads to visit. 

At a deep level, that makes sense, because the whole point of Facebook lead ads, or Google pay-per-click, is to identify somewhat interested people who really don’t know you. For that kind of family, an onsite visit is a big step.

Since leads-no-visit was happening with their follow-up scripts, I spent most of a day rewriting these scripts based on everything I had learned in Christian school marketing, with our extensive Christian school research base. After all, as Donald Miller of StoryBrand says, copy sells.

The result? Well, people with far less marketing skill than me reworked all the scripts again, without even trying mine, not even one time. Six weeks later – still leads-no-visit – they lost a client who was paying them $1250 a month. Nearly 100 prospects in four months, less than a handful of visits, and 1 enrollment – maybe.

To grow, you have to figure out how to get new families to actually visit. 

It’s simple: No visit = no enrollment. It’s not good enough to have a high closing rate if they do visit. How many did not visit, and what are we going to do about it?

Getting Leads in the Way You’d Least Expect

Do you realize there is a way to generate leads that has nothing to do with generating leads? Do you realize there is an important closing methodology that seemingly has nothing to do with enrollment closing?

The answer to both of these is: YES – your tuition and financial aid procedures. Ask yourself, would you get more inbound phone calls if you had NO TUITION RATES on your website? Think about it. Do you think it is likewise to get more campus visits as a consequence of increased inbound calls? Of course it is.

It’s not even theoretical: we do it all the time and have helped our clients do this for years. (Important safety tip: You do need to have a financial page under your admissions tab. Even here, copy sells.)

Reassessing Successful Financial Aid Metrics

And while we are thinking deeply about financial aid, what is the best way to assess whether your financial aid program is actually working? Here are three possible metrics: (1) More students, (2) More net tuition, and (3) Amount of financial aid given away.

With those three, what is the #1 financial aid success metric from a Christian ministry point of view? Clearly it has to be that we serve more students, right? #2 from a ministry point of view would have to be the amount of net tuition income generated – AKA the money you keep. Why?  Because with more money we can better accomplish God’s intended vision and purpose for our school.

That means, from a ministry point of view, the amount of money you give away ranks dead last in deciding if your financial aid program is any good at all. Yet this is the number many board members cling to, resulting in financial aid decisions that cause families to walk away, along with the tuition they were able to pay.

Matters are no better if you ask the same question from a financial point of view. Ask yourself, from a financial point of view, what would be the number #1 criteria to measure financial aid success? Clearly that has to be the amount of money you keep, right? And #2 would be the number of students at your school – from whom you can get more tuition dollars – right? And once again, even from a financial point of view, the money you give away is the least consideration in evaluating your financial aid acumen.

(Another safety tip: If you are reporting the amount of financial aid you give away on the expense side of your profit and loss statement, that means NO ONE in charge at your school understands this from a financial point of view. Don’t walk – RUN to the nearest CPA you can find. Find out how the amount of financial aid you give away belongs on the revenue side of your P&L. More importantly, ask them why.)

(Another really important safety tip: Is the amount of discounts you automatically give away, with no reckoning of parental income, subject to the same accounting treatment? Many schools don’t keep track of automatic discounts at all. If that is the case for your school, call 911. Here’s the Christian school version: (719) 278-9600, ext. 100. Phones are manned most weekdays and many Saturdays.)

Meeting Einstein’s Challenge with a Proven Survey

The point of this blog is to reinforce Einstein’s brilliant observation that the problems we face will not be solved at the same level of thinking that produced them in the first place.

When it comes to assessing the program quality of a Christian school, consider that Christian schools are among the most satisfying organizations in America. The average Net Promoter Score (NPS™) for a Christian school is 57 (840+ Christian schools). Look up a list of NPS™ scores for the Fortune 500 or 1000, and see how many of these you can find who have a Net Promoter Score higher than 57. Yeah, maybe 6. 

Practically then, what that means is that any survey you do to assess your program quality is likely to give you great results. A newbie competitor of ours ran a survey on an old client and said: “Your NPS™ score of 68 is the highest we have in our database!” In fact, over 20% of Graceworks client NPS™ scores were higher than that. But at least the Administrator felt real good. 

For a survey to really help you, you have to consider the impact of any program element on overall satisfaction.  We have a proprietary score — the leverage score — that is calculated for every program element – even custom program elements that you add. Part of the success equation has to be to determine if a given program element matters for your parents. That question is individual to schools, denominations, and parts of the country. 

What doesn’t help you is spending a lot of time and effort on program elements that are done better than parents care and thus do not impact parental satisfaction very much. Since I have personally interpreted nearly all of our 840 surveys, many of them multiple times, I am continually amazed at how often technology fits in that category. School safety? Sorry George Barna, to parents that is a given. (It was actually way more dangerous when Barna and I went to school ….)

One other problem that has been repeatedly rehashed at survey debriefs, particularly the bad ones, is that “our school is different from everyone else because of more or less ___________, or location, or ____ characteristic of our environment.”  That is a hard, hard problem to solve – to make all scores truly apples-to-apples. And we did.

In fact, we spent tens of thousands of dollars, and nearly an entire year, figuring out how to correct for all of that, including the times when, during the year, a school takes one of our surveys. Tens of thousands of iterative regressions, millions of total calculations to get these adjustments right. 

If it matters, we correct for it.  Period.  Whether it’s your geography, the economics of your location, the unique characteristics of your parent body, or the fact that you are a high school, and not an elementary.  Repeat:  If it matters, we correct for it.  Your report is completely apples-to-apples when it compares you to more than adequate Christian schools database for the United States and Canada.

Beyond Happy Talk

The bottom line is this: our surveys go beyond happy talk. They really tell you how to improve in ways that will matter to satisfaction, enrollment growth, and even donations and volunteering. (We show you this, with your own numbers.)

But talk is cheap. On September 7th, at 1:00 PM Central time, I will spend an hour showing you the actual tools and systems we have developed to make all of this possible. Go to zoom.us, Join a meeting. Use number 719 278 9600. We will let you in. Please be on time.

If the tone of this blog seems a tad irritated, it is, because I really care. I would rather tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear…particularly if you are not growing right now, when the floodgates of heaven seem to be open. 

Want Solutions That Actually Work?

Call or Join us on Wednesday.

“Consumer marketing strategies” are not likely to solve the problems you are facing. Generating leads will not be enough. If you need real help that tells it the way it is, call us. My number is (719) 278-9600, ext. 100. And if you’d like more specifics, I’ll see you on Zoom this Wednesday, 1:00 PM Central, same number as our phone (no parentheses or extension).