Meeting Financial Need: An Enrollment Strategy at St. Mary's
“Our family can’t afford to send our kids to a Catholic school.”
Working in education since 1982, Dr. John Dolan hears this type of comment often. Now the head of school at St. Mary’s Lynn in Lynn, Massachusetts, he sees firsthand how this sentiment can negatively impact a school’s enrollment, revenues, and financial aid.
For St. Mary’s, the time had come for the school to make a transformational change around affordability and transparency in pricing. The school adopted a new financial model that will dramatically improve its ability to attract and retain students who want to benefit from a St. Mary’s education. “Families needed eight feet of rope, and we were throwing them four. It wasn’t working,” Dolan said.
Message received. This year St. Mary’s welcomed 209 new students from families hailing from over 30 communities in Boston’s North Shore—a 125 percent increase from 2018-19.
St. Mary’s saw the biggest jump in new enrollment from Latino students—46 this year compared to 9 in 2018, a 411 percent increase—and Dolan attributes much of this success to his team’s participation in the 8th cohort of the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Latino Enrollment Institute this summer.
After joining St. Mary’s in 2018, Dolan was approached by Sr. Bárbara Gutiérrez, SNDdeN, the Archdiocese of Boston’s Director of Enrollment Management. Sr. Bárbara had examined the demographics of Lynn, and she suggested that the LEI could help St. Mary’s welcome more Latino families into their community.
“The Lynn public schools have 15,700 students, and 63 percent are Latino,” noted Dolan. “Sr. Bárbara asked me, ‘What are you doing to reach out to these families?’”
Dolan’s team researched the LEI, completed the application and admission process, and headed to Notre Dame for four days of intense professional development.
“Coming from the world of higher education,” said Dolan, “I thought this would be a helpful conference, but did not expect the rigor and professionalism I previously experienced. When I arrived and got into the conference, I was absolutely blown away.”
LEI participants heard from experts on topics such as school culture, marketing to Latino families, needs-based tuition, English language learners, and much more.
“Each speaker was so passionate about this mission, and all of the presenters took time to share their experiences and answer all of our questions,” Dolan said.
A vital part of the LEI for school leaders is the year-long mentorship program provided by veteran principals who have already had success in attracting and serving Latino families and their children to their own schools. Before the monthly check-in calls begin, the mentors begin to build relationships with their teams during the summer LEI. “The attention and mentorship that Jo Jones (LEI Mentor and Executive Director of Academics for Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, MD) gave to our team was invaluable, and we left campus with so many tangible tools to make St. Mary’s a more welcoming place for Latino families,” Dolan said.
Once back at St. Mary’s, Dolan and the team dug into their admissions data and saw one message in particular staring them in the face: affordability. The team reached out to families that had been accepted but had not enrolled, and it was clear that tuition rates and a burdensome financial aid process were to blame.
“Do you know what the most visited page on our website was?” Dolan asked. “The page with the tuition and cost information...it also happened to be the page where most people left the site.
“This pattern of behavior told us that prospective families were just looking at the price tag and deciding that St. Mary’s wasn’t an option for them.”
In order to combat this trend, Dolan and his team developed a three-step approach. First, the team would emphasize the accessibility and affordability of St. Mary's by creating resources, such as a Financial Aid Estimator tool. A simplified version of the FACTS financial aid form—which can be cumbersome for parents to complete—this tool allows St. Mary’s to offer families an estimated financial aid package in an expedited fashion.
Second, the team honored those financial commitments and made every effort to meet the demonstrated need of each student.
“We’re proud to say that 99 percent of our estimated financial aid packages were the actual amounts that we were able to award to our families,” Dolan noted.
This streamlined financial aid process helped St. Mary’s post the strongest year-over-year new student enrollment growth in over a decade. While Dolan and his team are proud of those numbers, they are more excited about how these new families have boosted the quality of the student body, as measured by grades, essay scores, and recommendations.
“These young people are going to change St. Mary's!” Dolan said.
The increase in enrollment—both in quantity and quality—has allowed St. Mary's to accomplish the third step of their new approach: to increase philanthropic support. Dolan and his team compiled compelling student profiles and presented them to donors with requests for funding.
"One donor was provided 7 profiles of new Latino students, with a request to fund 5 of the 7 students," noted Dolan. "He chose to fund all 7 students, and actually doubled his amount per student, because he was so impressed with these young people. These profiles viscerally connect the donors to the students and help increase philanthropic support."
The good news for St. Mary's is that donors, local foundations, alumni and others have responded to their requests for tuition funding, but Dolan shared that "if you don’t secure the student enrollment, the strategy doesn’t work."
Dolan, an avid runner who is preparing for his 27th marathon later this year, offered this analogy for St. Mary’s progress. “We’re at that point around mile 5 or 6 where you’ve got some good momentum going, but you also know that you’ve got a ways to go until the finish line.”
Armed with a 36-month enrollment plan, St. Mary’s feels confident they can keep up the pace and is excited for what the future holds. Signs of expansion abound: the newly-formed field hockey team recently secured their first victory, the crew team completed their first practice, and the shipment of steel for a new STEM facility just arrived.
When asked what advice he would give to schools who might be considering the LEI this year, Dolan responded, “You can’t afford not to do it.”
Interested in increasing your school’s enrollment?
About St. Mary’s Lynn
St. Mary's is a Catholic, college-preparatory school developing students in grades 6-12 from more than 30 communities on Boston's North Shore. Shaping authentic men and women of talent and faith.