The Business of Operating a Sustainable School
Catholic schools are private, non-profit organizations that rely on voluntary support to keep their doors open. For Catholic schools to survive, their revenue must meet their expenses. This means, first and foremost, that they must provide a quality education that parents are willing to pay for and is significantly better than the “free” education offered by public schools. In addition, Catholic schools must set tuition at a level that will cover a considerable portion of operational costs, without pricing local families out of the school. They must also develop an effective fundraising program to bridge the gap between tuition revenue and costs.
Making the numbers work year after year is a daunting task. In fact, it is the aspect of operating a school that many leaders of Catholic schools identify as their greatest challenge.
All school communities are different. The precise calculations for tuition and financial aid that work for one school may not be a good fit for another school. Similarly, a specific fundraising initiative that succeeds at one school may fail to raise money at another school. Even so, it is instructive to consider how the most effective school leaders approach their finances; many have developed ideas and practices that should be adopted as best practices and sources of inspiration for emerging schools.
Tuition and Financial Assistance
A commitment to making tuition affordable for families—by setting tuition low and/or offering generous financial aid and sibling discounts—is a hallmark of faithful Catholic schools.
Donoghue says accessibility is “critical” to the mission of Catholic schools. She shares the ideal approach of schools committed to advancing this mission:
Ideally, schools would offer a “full cost, full need” tuition model. This means, first, establishing the actual cost per student. Secondly, the school would undertake a process to determine family need (for example, financial aid applications).
Accessibility is critical to the mission of Catholic schools, so certainly sibling discounts and financial aid should be made available. But it’s important for everyone involved to know and understand the financial needs of the school; paying teachers a decent wage is important and will contribute to the school’s stability. I applaud schools that set up tuition assistance funds and encourage parishioners and grandparents to contribute.
The three most common tuition models are:
Affordability Model: Low tuition, plus modest sibling discounts, plus moderate financial aid
Family Model: Low tuition, plus significant sibling discounts, plus modest-to-moderate financial aid
Competitive Model: Higher tuition, plus no-to-modest sibling discounts, plus modest-to-significant financial aid
Keeping tuition low is a priority for Altman because she wants all families—including those of modest means—to be able to access “an education centered on faith, virtue, wisdom, apostleship.” She accomplishes this goal by offering sibling discounts in addition to financial aid. Her school provides aid to 30-40% of its families, with an average grant of $1,000. She explains:
As a pro-life Catholic school, we are committed to keeping tuition low for our families while providing an exemplary education program for all. A Catholic school education is the best investment for a child’s faith formation, academics, and happiness, and we are glad to share in the financial sacrifice by providing tuition discounts, engaging with our families in rigorous fundraising, offering needs-based tuition scholarships, and partnering with St. Mary of the Assumption parish to fund our program.
Cruz uses a similar model. Her school offers low tuition with sibling discounts and financial aid. Sixty percent of families, representing 70% of all students, receive financial assistance. The average grant amount is $3,689.
Vander Weele also embraces the affordability model. Most of her school families live on a single income and appreciate the low tuition and sibling discounts. Fifty percent of her school families receive financial aid. She is sensitive to the financial concerns of families even as she promotes the high value of her program. She explains:
I struggle with our low tuition because I don't want to undersell us. There's something to be said about parents embracing the fact that an authentically Catholic education is worth investing in. I think we’re growing our tuition rate properly, but we can never lose sight of the financial concerns of our families. It's a scary thing for a family who loves Lourdes and wonders whether they will be able to continue to afford tuition as they have more children. I really want to honor the domestic church and honor single-income families.
Woltering approaches tuition from the perspective that families—not students—pay tuition to be a part of his school community. Making it possible for all children in a family to attend the same K-12 school is the most significant motivation for his tuition model. He offers steep sibling discounts, such that a family with 6 or more children—including high school and lower school students—would pay less than $19,000. Because the rate for multiple children in a family is so low, Holy Family Academy only grants tuition assistance to approximately 8% of families.
Offering a tuition schedule in harmony with Catholic teaching on openness to life is important to the leaders of faithful schools. Martinez explains:
I think the sibling discount is important. We want to encourage fruitfulness in life. We want to support families that are open to life.
She credits her pastor and her parish for making Catholic education affordable for local families attending her school. “Our pastor feels strongly that we should not turn anyone away,” she says.
Offering free tuition for the fourth child and additional children is a common practice of schools embracing the family model. Holy Child Catholic School (a parochial school in Tijeras, New Mexico), St. Augustine Academy (an independent school in Ventura, California), St. Regis Academy (a parochial school in Kansas City, Missouri), and St. Jerome Academy (a parochial school in Hyattsville, Maryland) are all K-8 schools that cap tuition after the third child.
Paul and Maura Doman are the parents of six children, with one on the way. They are passionate about education and consider the school they partner with to educate their children to be “definitely one of the most important decisions” they have had to make. For many years, they lived in Northern Virginia, an area of the country known for excellent schools including several faithful Catholic schools. They were part of a strong Catholic school community in Northern Virginia for several years.
Nonetheless, in 2018, the Domans moved 35 miles east to Hyattsville, Maryland, to enroll their children at St. Jerome Academy. The school’s tuition model, which would enable them to educate all of their children at a fraction of the cost of other schools in the area, was a major factor in their decision. Three years later, they are “really happy” with their decision. “We have seen our kids grow in their faith and virtue and excel in their studies while attending St. Jerome Academy,” they explain.
The Domans are part of a growing movement of families who are willing to go to great lengths—by literally uprooting their lives and moving—to join one of the authentically Catholic school communities that are growing in number in the United States, but still not available in most locations. Affordability for large families is an important way these schools differentiate themselves and attract faithful families.
When Presberg became headmaster of St. John the Beloved Academy, he set out to build a great school—a school that students, parents, and teachers would love, and that families would choose over “the best” schools in the area. His decades of experience as an educator and head of school at two independent schools informed his vision and strategic plan—including his approach to tuition. He had been the founding headmaster of Western Academy in Houston, Texas for five years, and the head of the lower school at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland for 15 years. Western and The Heights are private liberal arts schools for boys known for instilling in students a sense of adventure, intellectual curiosity, and moral virtue. Parents pay top-dollar to send their sons to these schools to learn from, and be mentored by, an all-male faculty of strong, engaging teachers with high integrity. Tuition at Western Academy is $20,400 (grades 3-5) and $22,200 (grades 6-8). Tuition at The Heights is $23,284 (grades 3-5), $28,310 (grades 6-8), and $31,320 (grades 9-12). Neither Western, nor The Heights, offers sibling discounts. Both provide financial aid; nearly half of the students at The Heights receive financial aid. Both have full enrollment with waitlists.
He knew that charging five-figure tuition at a K-8 parochial school overseen by the diocese would be out of the question. But he also knew he needed to generate more revenue to invest in the school’s teaching faculty and reverse plummeting enrollment. Teacher salaries are an expense Catholic schools did not have to worry about years ago when they were run by religious staff. He explains:
Catholic schools are no longer staffed by religious workers. We now have laymen educating our children. We have to pay them. We can’t have the mentality that teaching is a vocation of poverty. It’s detrimental to what we’re trying to accomplish. We have a beautiful, ambitious mission. We have the opportunity to save and transform the culture. But we will fail if we cannot pay excellent teachers capable of inspiring their students.
Part of his solution was to maintain modest tuition—$8,257 per student, with percentage increases each year (4-7%)—add book and activity fees, and phase out the sibling discount, which is currently approximately $1,000, with no increase per sibling and no children attending for free. This makes St. John the Beloved’s per-student tuition on par with most parochial schools in the area, and considerably lower than most private schools. It also leaves families with one or two school-aged children mostly unaffected, although it may mean students’ peer group includes fewer children from large families. It probably also means some large families will choose a Catholic school with a more generous sibling discount over St. John the Beloved.
Changing the tuition model has significantly increased tuition revenue both because (1) enrollment is full, due to many changes at the school, and especially an increased investment in faculty hiring and training and (2) no children attend for free or for less than $7,000 (although some families do receive financial aid). Before Presberg became headmaster, tuition and fee revenue covered only 65% of the budget and families were fleeing; now it covers 80% of the budget and enrollment is full with a waitlist. Presberg is pursuing initiatives that will further strengthen the school through better fundraising.
Another leader who was determined to build a great school, and then set tuition according to revenue needs, is Crawford of St. Jerome Institute. Similar to Presberg, he prioritized the development of his faculty as a primary consideration for his school. The result is a faculty he describes as “deeply committed, passionate, and talented,” who “take the craft of teaching seriously,” and who “have contributed to a unified vision” for the school.
Tuition at SJI is $15,000, which is higher than many Catholic schools, but still considerably lower than most private schools in the area. SJI offers a modest sibling discount of $1,000 per student. Two years into the operation of the school, 95% percent of students received some form of tuition reduction, with an average grant of $5,000. Fundraising currently makes up the difference between tuition revenue and expenses, but as enrollment grows and SJI continues to solidify its reputation as a school that unleashes in students a love of learning within the Catholic tradition, Crawford expects tuition revenue to cover a greater share of operational expenses. Financial aid will continue to assist families, but the higher cost of tuition will enable SJI to receive the full amount from some families, and that should help maintain a stable school.
School choice could be a game-changer for Catholic schools struggling to increase enrollment and tuition revenue. Historically, parents who chose Catholic education for their children have had to pay twice: once for public school through taxes and again to cover Catholic school tuition. But this is changing as more states embrace the idea that funding should follow students, not institutions.
Consider an illustration of how school choice in one state—West Virginia—makes Catholic education significantly more affordable for parents:
*ESAs are currently available to 90% of students in the state.
School choice could be transformative for Catholic schools because cost is a significant barrier for many families considering Catholic education. A study by the NCEA (National Catholic Education Association) and FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) found that most American parents do not believe Catholic schools are affordable, and they are not confident they could afford the cost of tuition. The study further found that awareness of state-sponsored tuition assistance programs (e.g., school choice vouchers and tax credits) is low, even among families living in states where they are offered.
All Catholic school leaders—and all pastors of Catholic churches—should inform Catholic families about school choice programs in their state. Currently, 32 states plus the District of Columbia offer some sort of private educational choice program. This includes:
9 with ESA programs: Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia
12 with Voucher programs: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin, plus District of Columbia
4 with Individual Tuition Tax credits: Alabama, Florida, Minnesota, South Carolina
18 with Scholarship Tax Credit programs: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia
13 with Special Needs programs: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Wisconsin
Maine and Vermont offer modest school choice programs that exclude Catholic schools. Both programs are being challenged in court, per Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the 2020 Supreme Court case that confirmed that the U.S. Constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion as applied to state school choice programs.
The following states offer no school choice:
Momentum in the school choice movement is growing. 2021 was a breakthrough year. Eighteen states enacted seven new school choice programs—including West Virginia’s groundbreaking ESA program—and expanded 21 existing programs.
A reformer doing important work for school choice is Shawn Peterson, president of Catholic Education Partners. He sees the school choice movement and the future of the American Catholic Church as inextricably linked—which is why he encourages all Catholics to support school choice. He explains:
In his 1931 essay “The Schools," the great Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc said, "For upon the schools depends the continuance of the Faith." This statement is no less true today than it was nearly one hundred years ago when he wrote it. While many Catholic schools exist to provide that faithful education, existence does not equal access. We must work to ensure that all families who desire a truly Catholic education have the means to do so and the best way to ensure this is with robust education choice programs in every state. Afterall, the very future of the American Catholic Church is at stake.
Most Catholic school principals and headmasters are educators at heart and administrators by necessity. Few have experience leading or managing projects outside of a school setting. Many learn to rely on their school networks to help them tackle unfamiliar challenges. This can lead to and exacerbate problems in many key areas, including one that is vital to the continued operation of a school: fundraising.
To keep the doors open, school leaders must bridge the gap between tuition revenue and costs. The amount school leaders must raise varies significantly from school to school, depending on a confluence of factors, including:
Rate of enrollment
Price of tuition
Amount of discounts and financial aid granted
Level of support (if any) from a parish or diocese
Expenses of teacher and administrator salaries, lease or mortgage payments, academic resources, and capital projects
Although some Catholic schools—especially parochial schools that receive significant support from a parish—rely on fundraising to cover as much as 50% to 80% of the budget, most operate under a 70/30 to 85/15 tuition-to-fundraising model, where tuition covers 70% to 85% of the budget and fundraising covers the remaining 30% to 15%.
New schools often rely heavily on fundraising for the first few years of operation, when, by design, they may operate at only 20–25% enrollment. Indeed, it is not unusual for a start-up school to rely on fundraising for 50% to 60% of its revenue until it reaches full enrollment and can transition to a more traditional 70/30 to 85/15 tuition-to-fundraising model.
No two school leaders approach fundraising exactly the same way. But the most effective leaders incorporate the following elements into their fundraising strategy:
A thoughtful plan
Transparency and reporting
In addition, Sullivan notes that schools involved in the reclaiming of the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church have an advantage in fundraising over schools that hang onto secular models. She explains:
Donors, too, are becoming increasingly attracted to Catholic schools in the classical liberal arts renewal, because they see that it works—not simply because it stabilizes the school, but because it fosters a distinctly vibrant culture of faith and learning. As so many young Catholics are falling away from the faith, they see that these schools are reversing the trend. They are engines of evangelization, well worthy of investment.
I am reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s statement during his U.S. visit in 2008, about the unique system of Catholic education: “It provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
All effective school leaders understand that fundraising is an important part of their job—and one that cannot be fully delegated to other staff. That’s because, as Crawford recognizes, a school leader is the “primary voice and face of fundraising” for a school and, as Vander Weele observes, “anyone considering supporting the school always wants to meet with [the school leader].”
Donoghue recommends that school leaders embrace this crucial responsibility and also invest in a development director to assist with this important work. She explains:
If at all possible, schools and parishes should work with a development director who would be responsible for much of the ground work of raising money. But leaders maintain an important position; they are often tasked with “selling” the school’s mission and vision to potential donors.
Roberts has been the president and lead fundraiser of his school since the beginning. He says fundraising is an “endless job,” but “rewarding.” He explains:
On the best days, I’m telling the story of our school, building relationships, inviting people to participate in the mission, all while engaging with students and faculty and strengthening the internal life of the school. But that’s a lot to do well every day.
His school is transitioning from a start-up to a more established school. He now benefits from the help of a development director. Even so, he recognizes that there will “always” be a need for him to be involved in ongoing relationships with donors.
A Thoughtful Plan
Having a thoughtful plan—knowing what amount needs to be raised, through which efforts—is critical to the success of a school’s fundraising efforts.
Generally, simple plans are easier for the school community to understand and get behind. An approach that has worked well for Woltering is budgeting for tuition and fees to cover general operating expenses, with fundraising revenue paying for improvements and capital campaigns.
Van Hecke’s school utilizes a plan “of thirds” that has worked well for his school for decades. This means:
The office raises a third (personal relationships, foundations, direct mail).
The board raises a third (gives or gets).
The parents raise a third through three events: a jog-a-thon (for families), a gala (run by mostly moms), and a golf-a-thon (run by mostly dads).
He says it’s important to set attainable goals and use positive motivation to help all three groups feel challenged to meet their goals. Micromanaging, demanding the meeting of quotas, and “bean counting” are negative motivators that suppress morale and hinder performance. Also, he says it’s counterproductive to overwork and overstimulate parents and community members with small fundraisers—for example, wrapping paper sales—that bring in small amounts. It’s better to meet the small needs from the budget and allow the community to focus their energy on a few major events and initiatives.
Fr. Sirico agrees that fundraising efforts should be focused. He explains:
We try to keep our fundraisers to a minimum. Constantly asking parents for more money throughout the year exhausts their patience and goodwill. Instead of a constant stream of small-scale fundraisers and intrusive capital campaigns, over the last few years we have striven to revive the Catholic duty to tithe.
It is unfortunate to note that if Catholics tithed to the levels expected by Canon Law, the financial difficulties of the Church across the nation would disappear. By creating a community that our parishioners truly want to invest in, we hope to inspire a newfound desire to tithe in money, time, and prayer. This appeal is ongoing and is the primary way we seek to gain long term financial security.
Sacred Heart Academy’s approach succeeds in raising 51% of its budget through fundraising, which keeps tuition affordable for families ($5,000 for K-8, $10,000 for 9-12).
Transparency and Reporting
The better parents and community members understand a school’s fundraising needs, the more enthusiastic they will be about making gifts and volunteering their time to help a school reach its goals.
Donoghue advises school leaders to present an annual “State of the School” address to the community, outlining the school’s financial state and upcoming initiatives.
This approach was critical in helping Altman gain momentum for her school’s fundraising early on. She credits providing “complete TRANSPARENCY in the budget” with helping her build a “true partnership” with her community. She explains:
First, I report the state of the school each year to our families. I engage them in the realities of offering this amazing educational program at an affordable price, and impress upon them the crucial role they play in making our “equation” work.
I also explain this “equation” to our new families—so they understand from the beginning that this is a true partnership and a community effort. This seems to be the most effective way of inspiring the self-giving and the work it takes to maintain our fundraising efforts over the course of the year—and it also inspires them to help us find donors who will support our mission.
I also show them all that we have done and continue to do to deliver a high-quality education, so that our families always know where their money is being spent. Whether it is new paint on the walls, or new literature for their classrooms, our families know how money is spent. Transparency is key for families (and donors); they must have confidence that we are being good stewards of their treasure.
Donoghue observes that a weakness of traditional fundraisers is that they often “hit” the same people who are already paying tuition, without regard for giving capacity. Schools that have a major gifts program avoid this common problem by:
Focusing on current families paying full tuition. As one parent shared:
Most parents paying full tuition are already doing some charitable giving. Many would gladly direct some of that charitable giving to the school that is serving their own children.
Involving grandparents of current students, alumni families, and the wider community—of the parish, diocese, and friends of the school—in fundraising initiatives.
Van Hecke has developed a robust major gifts program over the course of decades. The essence of his program is “building friendships with many donors, large and small.” He uses letters, visits to campus, and events to share the story of his school “with love and conviction.” He emphasizes:
In order for this to work, though, the headmaster has to Tell the Story, and regularly encourage parents, students and teachers to do the same. The classical, the strong Faith, and the joy are all very attractive. Clearly show how inexpensive our school is versus public schools or even high-priced private and Catholic schools. A simple chart can be a good story-telling aid.
Sending regular communications throughout the year—including some letters that ask for support and others that do not—help establish regular patterns of giving. Van Hecke says this enabled his fundraising program to build momentum early on. He shares a key piece of advice:
Do not underestimate the power of loving the small donor. She may send $10, but will also remember you in prayer. One early donor of ours was asked for $25 or $50, I cannot recall the original figure, but it was so small he could not say no. Five years later he donated $900,000.
Vander Weele has had tremendous success engaging the broader community through her major gifts program. She says her school’s mission—serving families by providing affordable Catholic education—resonates with all supporters of her school. Most of her donors have personal relationships with students or teachers. Some are invested in parish life. Some have grandchildren whom they hope will attend her school someday. A few years after she became principal, she started working with local Denver foundations and that is when “the scales tipped” for fundraising. “That happened,” she says, “because people saw a Catholic school that was succeeding.” She explains:
People are tired of supporting failing schools that produce ex-Catholics. I accept invitations to speak whenever I’m asked so more people can learn about our success and know not everything is doom and gloom.
There was a time when most support for Catholic schools came from current and alumni families, but that is changing with the success of the Catholic liberal education movement. Now, many Catholics are eager to support schools capable of forming faithful, virtuous young people who understand and embrace the teachings of the Church. Roberts explains:
One interesting group of donors are older parents of grown children. They will never have kids at our school. They tell us they wish a school like ours had existed when their kids were younger. They want to be a part of the renewal of the Church and they see their support of our school as the way to do that. There are a handful of younger donors who want our school to be here and thriving in a few years when their toddlers and elementary school students need us.
A best practice of schools with strong fundraising programs is incorporating campaigns— fundraising initiatives that last for a period of time, often to raise money for a specific purpose—as a regular part of the life of the school.
Crawford raises essential funds for his school by overseeing short campaigns during the school year, including:
Giving Week. Over the course of a dedicated “Giving Week,” he sends daily emails highlighting his school’s unique and compelling culture and academic program. He sets a fundraising goal, reports on the school’s progress throughout the week, and sends a celebratory email at the end of the week, thanking the community for its generosity. A matching gift—a pledge made by a supporter at the beginning of a campaign, promising to match all gifts up to a certain amount—has been an important part of his school’s Giving Week.
12 Days of Christmas. Throughout the 12 days of Christmas, he sends daily emails asking the community to support the purchase of specific items for the school—for example, lab equipment, a volleyball net, and materials to build a sailboat.
In association with these campaigns, and throughout the year, he also encourages community members to join the Society for the Renewal of the Catholic Mind, a membership society that acts as an intellectual community sponsored by the school. Gifts of $150 or more enroll a supporter in the Society.
Woltering relies on two campaigns every year to raise money and invite new people to participate in the life of the school:
Letter-Writing Campaign. Families are asked to submit one to three names of family members and friends to receive a handwritten letter from the student, a picture of the student on campus, and a letter from Woltering providing an update on the school.
Directory Ad Campaign. Families are given the option of making a $150 gift to the school or soliciting advertisements of at least $150 from local businesses for the annual family directory.
Martinez has found that the best way to secure necessary funds for her school is to pray about it and then appeal to parents and community members for help. This approach has worked as well for her capital campaign for a new building (she raised $450,000 in a few months) as it has for mini-campaigns for a climbing rope for the playground (she raised $2,500 from parents by putting a note about it in the bulletin), a refrigerator for the school, and a sofa for the teachers’ lounge.
Fundraising events often serve the dual purpose of building community and raising essential funds for a school. Popular events include 5k races and “fun runs,” golf tournaments, feast day celebrations, and galas.
When Altman became principal of her school, she transformed the major fundraising event of the year—the Spring Gala—by opening it up to the entire community and expanding it to include dinner and dancing with local bands. She doubled the revenue of the gala the first year and increased it by 40% the next year.
Presberg has similarly opened his events to the broader community, with great success. He explains:
We are building a culture where fundraising happens not only with current families, but with the broader community. Our mission is bigger. Our product is more than academics; it is the community of school and parish families. People are willing to support that.
His most successful fundraising event is a Spring Dream Garden Party, “a relaxed cocktail party filled with conversation, friends, and music.” In preparation for this event, he transforms the appearance of the school property to encourage guests to experience conversation and friendship—hallmarks of a St. John the Beloved education. He shares why attending to the details of the Spring Dream Garden Party is important:
How we do events matters. We think about the whole picture, from improving the look and feel of the school, to creating spaces for conversation. We are having success inviting community members to participate in the life of the school, so they feel a part of the mission.