While most of higher education struggles with population declines, Catholic colleges and universities are facing additional decreases in enrollment. In the past decade, Catholic baptisms in the U.S. have decreased by 34%, and enrollment in Catholic secondary schools is down by 6%.
And in a recent update from the College Board, SAT and PSAT test takers no longer have the option to specify "Catholic" or any other specific religious preference. They can only indicate interest in any religiously affiliated school—and as one Chief Enrollment Officer put it, "We now recruit students with blinders on."
So, what can a Catholic college do to mitigate these challenges? We know that successfully recruiting students requires understanding their—and their parents’—needs and concerns and aligning to their preferences, which is why we collect and analyze intel from over 1.2 billion student interactions each year.
To help our Catholic school partners, EAB Enrollment Services went a step further to survey over 1,800 students and more than 800 parents to shed light on the types of colleges students and their parents were considering, and whether students and their parents would consider a religiously affiliated school, and more specifically, a Catholic college or university.
Cost-conscious students and parents think Catholic colleges are "expensive"
As is common with any survey or analysis, our team certainly had some pre-conceived ideas about the types of responses we would get. This was especially true for our survey section on the characteristics students and parents associate the most and the least with Catholic institutions.
While we weren’t necessarily surprised to find that both students and parents associated Catholic colleges and universities with the descriptors "conservative" and "traditional," we were surprised that "expensive" was among the top of the list. And among the parents who indicated they are less likely to consider a Catholic institution now as compared to this time last year, 21% acknowledged expense as a top reason. They also cited not being Catholic (38%) and scandal/corruption (15%).
The perception of "expensive" presents an important hurdle for Catholic colleges to overcome to combat their shrinking prospect pool. We know that Gen Z students are more cost-conscious than millennials, and three of the four most commonly cited concerns for parents have to do with paying for college.
Religious affiliation takes a back seat to practical attributes
Our team also looked closer at the role of religious affiliation overall for both Catholic and non-Catholic schools. We learned that a college’s religious affiliation does not play a major part in whether that school is a student’s first choice.
Students are more likely to consider a college based on size, job placement/prospects, research opportunities and internships, and experiential learning. This certainly speaks to Gen Z’s pragmatic nature.
And overall, fewer than one-third of parents and one-quarter of students are currently considering a religiously affiliated institution. Not unexpectedly, students and parents who identify as Catholic are significantly more likely to be considering at least one religiously affiliated institution (30% and 43% respectively).
Three student recruitment tactics all colleges can use
Influencing student and parent perceptions might seem daunting, but there is an opportunity for Catholic institutions to both articulate their values within the context of their Catholic identity while better reaching prospective students.
The first strategy is to articulate authentic values. We’ve already mentioned that Gen Z students are pragmatic and cost-conscious. However, they also possess other core values that align naturally with the values of most Catholic colleges:
- Purpose-driven: College-bound students are looking to make a difference in the world and lives of others. Making money takes a backseat to idealism, they are more motivated by mission than by financial gain
- Socially responsible: Today’s students are aspiring social entrepreneurs who look to social influencers for guidance
- Culturally open: Raised in a multicultural world, today’s college-bound students are the most culturally diverse generation in recent history
Second, speak directly to parents and direct your messaging to address their known cost concerns. These communications extend well beyond the traditional "Dear Parent of..." letters after applications are received. We talked in more depth about this in a recent blog post and suggested colleges could explain and contextualize the cost discussion to highlighted the value of the institution. For example, "We have a high four-year graduation rate, which can ultimately cut your overall college costs by xx% or more..."
Additionally, communications to parents should start in their child’s sophomore and junior year of high school to be most impactful.
The third strategy is to include high school seniors who take standardized tests in winter and spring. These late testers tend to be overlooked by many colleges that operate on a more traditional timetable. In the spirit of inclusiveness, these late testers are good prospects for Catholic institutions.
For all but the most nationally-branded and well-known Catholic institutions, resting the bulk of their value proposition on being Catholic is no longer enough. However, every college or university has the people, activities, and student outcomes that give witness to the authentic values inherent in Catholic college education—values that will resonate with students and parents.
Source: CARA Institute. Georgetown University.