Fundraising and the Catholic School Mission

Last year I wrote about my Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education. As a graduate of a now-elite prep school and Alumni Board member I have been privileged to participate in many discussions lately about the future of the school. Like most non-profits, fund raising is always a top priority. While tuition has risen considerably since my time there the actual cost of educating a student far exceeds what parents are actually charged. Our endowment fund is used to make up the difference.

The dream for my alma mater, which already gives out more student aid than all of the other prep schools in the archdiocese combined, is to eventually be able to offer enough financial aid that all students attend for free. This is an admirable goal that is part of the longterm strategic planning for the school. An interesting question has arisen though which I think dovetails somewhat with the voucher debate that flairs up from time to time in the United States.

A unique aspect of the school I attended is that no students are ever turned away due to academic ability. A note from our president explains:

“Our mission from the day we opened has been to serve the broadest population possible. We are proud of the academic, geographic, racial, ethnic and economic diversity found in our school. Our doors will remain wide open for those who seek a caring community of teachers and learners, rooted in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.”

While all of the Catholic high schools in Louisville give the same ‘placement test’ for incoming freshman, our school does not use student test scores as a barrier to admission. There is a robust program in place to assist students with learning disabilities and this is considered part of our mandate as a Catholic institution. Other schools do not operate under the same philosophy which is a fact that we believe sets us apart from them as a more inclusive environment. Of course the rub is that the current cost of an education does still create a type of elitism.

I have argued in the past that elitism in schools is a good thing. Whether it be a top-flight private school with steep tuition costs or a public school with special invitation-only magnet programs in place, students benefit from a system that creates barriers to access. Overcoming those barriers demonstrates a desire to succeed. In the case of private schools, when parents are writing large checks, it is a good bet that they will be engaged in their child’s education. In a public school setting, when a student that passes the barriers to admission into a special program or into a school with a long waiting list, they themselves demonstrate a desire to be part of something special. We saw this with our oldest daughter who worked very hard to make it into the best public middle school and high school in our district. Once there the students were told often that there was a long line of kids who wanted their place in the program and under-performing was not an option. She developed a sense of elitism during those years that could be considered distasteful at some later point in life but played a vital role at that stage in her education.

So the question facing my alma mater if our endowment dream is realized is this: If tuition eventually becomes free, how do we still maintain those barriers which make the school succeed? If cost no longer represents a barrier to admission, what will prevent us from being just another free place to get an education? This has been one of the things I have never understood about vouchers. My fear is that we will be forced to ask for higher test scores as a means of filtering incoming students and this may end the practice of accepting students with less academic ability. If we want to continue their inclusion, what other barriers can we create? As of this writing I do not have the answers.

This is the challenge we will face somedat but it is a long way off. In the meantime we are looking for solutions to tap more donor money and get that into the hands of students via tuition assistance. It is a goal I believe strongly in but one that perhaps leads to more questions than answers.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky

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17 thoughts on “Fundraising and the Catholic School Mission

  1. Mike,

    How well educated are you on charters? Because your school will very much resemble a charter (albeit with some key differences). Many (if not all) charters are barred from using academic ability as a barrier to entry. In fact, the key (and often only) barrier to entry is a lottery system of some kind or another. But the catch is that parents have to actively enroll their child in the lottery. That alone represents a huge step that those families are willing to take that many others — sadly — do not. It means parents have educated themselves on their options, learned how to enter the system, and took the time and energy to do so. Given what we know about the key role that parent involvement plays in educational outcomes, this seemingly small barrier is actually huge. For my money, it is the key reason that charters (sometimes) outperform their public counterparts. It is less about philosophy or instructional method and more about the fact that one school has a group of parents who self-selected in and the other does not.

    Some schools go further… requiring parents to sign contracts about ongoing involvement (including attendance at meetings and so forth) and will remove children if the parents do not comply. There are mixed feelings on that within educational circles.

    A documentary was done on the system. It’s called “The Lottery”. FWIW, the lotteries themselves are controversial as are charter schools as is damn near everything about education these days. The movie isn’t the most objective take, but it gives some insight.

    So, long story short, the fact that your school requires parents to do *something* rather than nothing to enroll their children will make a difference. And since I presume you won’t be using a lottery, the school will retain some control over those it admits. The lack of tuition may boost applications, but you are still going to be limited by the number of seats you have. Your admissions team will presumably consider a variety of factors in selecting students aimed at maintaining the mission of the school.

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    • Kazzy,

      I can’t imagine they would ever allow a lottery. As I noted this is a long, long way off but I would see them creating some kind of committee that would consider a lot of factors, hopefully striving to keep it fair.

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      • How do they currently select who is admitted and who is not?

        By the way, I should note how admirable the school’s mission and goals are. While I generally look side-eyed at organized religion, what you offer here is one of the example of how profoundly positive it can be.

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      • The current policy is, “Can you pay the tuition?” There are really no other requirements. We do not exclude based on academic ability or even religion. There is always a cadre of students that are non-Catholic, however there is an understanding that they will still have religion class and attend school Masses.

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      • , I didn’t think the NAIS accredited schools. I was under the impression that private schools are accredited by the same regional organizations that accredit public schools (here in California, it’s WASC, but in Kentucky it’s SASC and in New York it’s MSASC).

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      • We’re both sorta right. NY independent schools are accredited by NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools). This is an independent, non-governmental body. I actually don’t know if it is considered a subsidiary of NAIS or what the relationship is. Not every state has it’s own organization though, usually due to size. New England schools have a region group (AISNE… Association of Independent Schools of New England); and that is an area that is still pretty rich with schools. I don’t know how it works in Kentucky and other places where the independents are fewer and farer between… I don’t know if they still have a state group, a regional group, or if NAIS takes the reins.

        I do know that it is completely separate from the public school systems, which are regulated by state departments of education and other governmental groups.

        The process is also very different. Generally, a public school needs to meet certain specific criteria to remain operational (e.g., test scores). I don’t know how every state works, but in the two states I’ve worked in, independent school accreditation happens every 10 years (with a 5 year check in) and a school is measured against its own mission statement and other statements of purpose. Basically, is the school doing what it says it is doing. And the accreditation itself is only as valuable as the market dictates. You can operate a non-accredited school, but most people won’t even look at you. There are probably still some basic criteria you need to be legally (e.g., safety codes) but I don’t think that comes through the DOE.

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      • Looking at their websites, the local parochial schools are both accredited by WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges), the same organization that accredits public schools and universities in California. The local Catholic school has additional accreditation from the Western Catholic Education Association. (semi off-topic: Kazzy, is your school parochial or secular?)

        WASC is a private organization. Accreditation is in addition to the NCLB testing and adequate yearly progress that can result in school closure. As best I can figure out, non-accreditation for public grade schools mostly impacts whether their graduates can get into college or get jobs that require a high school diploma.

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  2. I wonder how effective a filter parent interviews would be? That would take up some resources, though you could accept kids above a certain academic threshold and then interview the rest looking for kids who have parents that are engaged and so on. That’s the only thing that comes to my mind.

    This actually parallels issues with free and low-cost online classes. Critics tout the drop-out rate, but at least some of that is due to the fact that the self-selection is entirely different.

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  3. ” In the case of private schools, when parents are writing large checks, it is a good bet that they will be engaged in their child’s education.”

    Or the converse, that they shall consider themselves to have performed their duty to the child via the writing of said large check, and become quite annoyed when the school demands that they be engaged in their child’s education. Yes, I have seen it, I call them “paycheck parents”, they are typically wealthy and leave the raising of their children to other people while they pursue their business enterprises, and both they and their offspring are accustomed to getting their way at all times. Furthermore, if the parent is wealthy enough and contributes significant money to the school’s fundraising, they can and do threaten to withdraw their support if the school requires them to be engaged in their child’s education beyond writing the check. Yes, I have seen it.

    Most Catholic schools don’t compromise their standards in the face of these pressures due to the philosophy of Catholic education as a mission rather than as a business. And a large percentage of Catholic school parents do remain engaged in their child’s education, otherwise they’d drop them off at the local public school. But the paycheck parent is a problem, and one perhaps understated because it’s embarrassing to admit that Catholic schools can be bought with money (somewhat) just as any other private school can be bought.

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  4. Given the school’s mission, one way to filter students would be to look specifically for students who are ‘falling between the cracks’ in the public school system (or other schools).

    Frequently, children who have some scattering in their learning profile; good at math, for instance, but not at Language arts (or the inverse). These children are often very bright, but bright in spikes; and often have their difficulties pulling down their overall ability to excel in school. Indicators would include high test scores in some areas that are not matched by grades, overall academic performance that’s deemed ‘less’ then what the student might be capable of achieving, and behavioral reports of ‘not doing the work,’ but not necessarily ‘difficult.’

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  5. Mike,
    As a fellow Catholic school educator for 24 years, I only wish that someday your school – and every other Catholic school in the nation _ will have to deal with the problems that may ensue from offering a tuition-free Catholic education!
    Many blessings to you all.

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