Adventist School of the Heartland (ASH)1 is a private elementary school located in the rural midwest United States. The two-teacher school saw its enrollment peak at 45 students during academic years 2004-2005 and 2005-2006.2 By the 2020-2021 academic year, the school had a teaching principal and 18 students from 13 families. Marketing efforts by the ASH administration have not yet yielded the desired increase in student enrollment.
There has been a similar decline in enrollment among many Adventist K-12 schools within the North American Division.3 Researchers have found that positive school image, promotion, marketing of school programs, and parent loyalty are associated with increasing enrollments.4 For this evaluation, we (the authors) defined “parent loyalty” as actions that promoted or led to enrollment at ASH.5 Additionally, in the literature, Li and Hung define school image as follows: “School image can be formed by many different factors and is the result of a cumulative process that incorporates experience over time, diverse information, and marketing activities of the school. . . [h]owever, school image can be enhanced when parents are satisfied with the perceived school marketing activities.6
Through a replicative evaluation based on the work of Li and Hung, we sought to (1) determine which current marketing strategies were most effective for learning about ASH, and (2) determine how school image was influential in developing parent loyalty at ASH.
Marketing Strategies for Faith-based Schools
Mainda’s study analyzed the relationship between several factors and parent choice for enrolling their child(ren) in Adventist schools instead of public education in southwest Michigan.7 The study found statistical significance with most factors, such as placing a high level of importance on Christian education, a desire for the teachers to be spiritual, Adventist biases in selecting same-faith education, and cost of tuition. Although data and resources were limited in Mainda’s study, it addressed parent loyalty and marketing strategies for an Adventist school and causes for low enrollment.
Similarly, in research from Thayer et al., the North American Division Educational Taskforce (NADET) and the Strengthening Adventist Education (SEA) research project addressed the importance of school quality and accountability for Adventist schools8 and made several recommendations. The uniqueness of the Adventist educational system comes from the ability to provide education that nurtures a wholistic perspective on mental, physical, and spiritual growth. Recommendations from the taskforce included developing a system-wide plan that attracts and supports qualified teachers, consistent training for teachers (both pre- and in-service) about the distinctiveness of Adventist education and mission, and providing support for the teachers to facilitate effective education and create a nurturing environment.
Another vital element to fostering parent loyalty and a positive school image is collaboration between the church and the school. Anderson observed, “Decades ago it was considered de rigueur that pastors would wholeheartedly support our schools.”9 In a 2017 article, Thayer et al. reported that since “many members and pastors have not attended Seventh-day Adventist schools, there needs to be increased focus on the importance of Adventist education to the mission of the church.”10
Throughout the period covered by the study reported in this article, ASH experienced the benefit of a supportive pastor. The local Adventist pastor visited the school for a weekly whole-school chapel service, conducted small-group Bible studies with the older students, and was “very supportive of [ASH’s] events and makes an effort to attend them,” reported the school’s teaching principal. The pastor has promoted church events at the school, and likewise, the school has had the opportunity to make announcements at church. The pastor has also encouraged the students to participate in worship service (e.g., reading Scripture).11
Conceptual Framework for Loyalty
The ASH evaluators adapted a questionnaire from Li and Hung to make it possible to collect and ultimately share more credible and reliable feedback.12 Li and Hung investigated how marketing strategies can enhance parents' loyalty in the educational context. Their results showed that selected marketing strategies significantly and meaningfully determine the perception of school image; however, promotion strategies (e.g., formal and informal communication with parents) are the most effective approach.13
Additionally, school image is an effective predictor of parent loyalty. While school image fosters the relationship between marketing strategies and parent loyalty, findings also suggest that school administrators can use marketing strategies to enhance school image, which results in increased enrollment. Badri and Mohaidat, along with Skallerud, examined three themes: school image, parent satisfaction, and parent loyalty.14 Utilizing previous research, the ASH evaluation team conducted and completed in late 2020 a comprehensive review of how marketing strategies affected school image and parent loyalty. The adapted survey helped identify current marketing strategies and allowed the team to propose a framework for effective marketing.
The study consisted of a mixed-methods approach to gather data about marketing efforts and parent loyalty at ASH. A multi-pathway questionnaire, which measured marketing tactics and parent loyalty, was distributed to various stakeholders (i.e., pastor, church members, school board members, parents, community members, and ASH administration). Our team conducted an initial interview with ASH’s teaching principal to evaluate the school’s marketing program and create an action plan to address enrollment and retention goals for the upcoming accreditation process. This meeting offered insight into understanding ASH’s needs and hopes for the future of its marketing and recruitment initiatives.
The team used Qualtrics as the survey medium. All quantitative questions in the survey were adapted from Li and Hung, and the team created the qualitative questions with the needs of ASH and the goals given by the principal in mind.15 The survey was designed with display logic that branched into three surveys to target each group (see list above) with specific questions for that sample type. To account for reliability and validity, several pilot surveys were distributed to staff members of a neighboring Adventist school. Their feedback was used to change the language in the survey to be more precise and concise. The Qualtrics form was made available in print and digital format by the ASH principal. Participants had two weeks to complete the survey.
Data Analysis and Findings
The evaluation team used convenience sampling to collect surveys from participants. The sampling goal was to collect 75 percent of the surveys from the entire group of families, staff, and board members. Sixteen surveys were returned by participants who identified as being in one or more categories. Thirty-three percent of the board members and 100 percent of the school administrator and teachers responded to the survey. The parent response rate was 62 percent of the 13 families. Though our sample size was small, findings were still congruent with those of Li and Hung and indicated a positive correlation between school image and parent loyalty.16
Respondents were given the choice of an online or physical questionnaire to complete. The questionnaire began with an informed-consent form, which discussed the purpose of the study. Throughout the questionnaire, prompts asked participants to respond on a Likert scale between “strongly agree” and “disagree.” Questions in the Qualtrics survey (adapted from Li and Hung) related to marketing were as follows:
- The school environment is safe.
- Teachers generally care for their students.
- The school uses mass media such as newspapers or television or holds activities such as graduation ceremonies or sports meets to let others know more about the school.
- The school holds exhibitions or performances of students and invites parents or people living in the neighborhood to join.
Nine Likert-scale questions evaluated ASH marketing strategies and parent loyalty using additional open-ended questions adapted for each group. All Likert-scale questions were adapted from Li and Hung.17 Figure 1 shows the aggregate data to the four questions related to marketing by 16 participants for a total of 64 selected responses. As demonstrated in Figure 1, 85.9 percent (N=55) of the selections were positive (either “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree”).
The results of this marketing analysis demonstrated that those affiliated with ASH agreed with the methods used to recruit and spread the word about the school. However, contrary to the survey respondents’ beliefs that current tactics have been successful, enrollment at ASH contradicts this. The school has seen declining enrollment for several years as it has competed with public and private schools in the area. While the results demonstrated that parents had a high level of loyalty, this loyalty has not yet resulted in their actively promoting the school or recruiting students.
Although the data in Figure 1 are aggregate, they depict the level of agreement by all 16 respondents with the school’s fall 2020 marketing strategies. The only option receiving “strongly disagree” responses pertained to the use of mass media, newspapers, and school exhibits to spread the word about the school. One hundred percent of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that the school was safe and that the teachers cared for their students. This is great content that should be shared with constituents and the public but currently is not. Results showed that community outreach received mixed reviews by respondents. One survey question addressed the use of mass media. The respondents’ selections varied from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
According to Li and Hung, parent loyalty is a term that describes people’s unwavering commitment to re-enroll their child(ren) at a particular institution in the future.18 Moreover, loyal parents, as influential advocates, provide positive word-of-mouth encouragement to other parents to enroll their children in the institution. Parent loyalty is also based on the parents’ overall perception of the school, known as “school image.” Of the questions in the survey, only those about parent loyalty were considered for evaluation. The following questions in the Qualtrics survey (adapted from Li and Hung) related to parent loyalty:
- If I have an elementary child, I plan to re-enroll my child at the same school next academic year.
- When my child is entering or enrolling in an elementary school, this school will be my first choice.
- When my relatives or friends need information about school, I will voluntarily recommend this school.
- I will encourage my relatives or friends to let their children attend this school.
- When talking about school with my relatives or friends, I will praise this school voluntarily.
Figure 2 indicates that a high percentage of ASH parents expressed loyalty and had a positive image of the school. More than 55 percent (N=7) of parents surveyed agreed to take action to demonstrate their loyalty. However, similar to the findings in the marketing strategies in Figure 1, the declining enrollment strongly contradicts these results. More research is needed to extrapolate why parents with high loyalty and positive school image have not encouraged more parents to enroll their children in ASH. One stakeholder who identified as a parent and church member consistently responded, “somewhat disagree” or “neither agree nor disagree.” This particular stakeholder’s insight could provide more clarity on what the school could do to increase its parent loyalty.
Two implications emerged from the evaluation. First, ASH should strategically deliver cost-effective marketing initiatives to inform the community of why the school is an important fixture in the area. This is an opportunity to expand beyond basic marketing venues such as mass media and the newspaper and focus on other marketing strategies. The second implication is to invite parents to act upon their loyalty and positive image of the school to actively recruit based on their personal experiences. The parents have a powerful tool: word-of-mouth. Used effectively, this can help promote and expand the enrollment goals of ASH.19 ASH can build on incentive and referral opportunities for parents who enlist new students. The parents will be more likely to support their school if incentives (e.g., receiving a tuition benefit through a referral program) are used to encourage them to spread the word.
Future Research and Limitations
There were several limitations to this study. One of its limitations was a lack of comparison between ASH and other surrounding private schools regarding the impact of marketing and school image. The comparison would provide a picture of similarities and differences for effective marketing and influences on school image. A second limitation was the inability to survey parents who chose to withdraw their student(s) from ASH or who did not participate in the survey. Gaining their insight would have been helpful in formulating better recommendations. A third limitation was the sample size and response rate of this evaluation. Yet another limitation stemmed from the nature of the questions. While the Likert scale allowed individuals to select a level of agreement to the statements, it did not provide details to explain the reasoning for their selection. Despite these limitations, the information collected can help ASH develop an action plan.
Thayer et al. recommended that each school develop “a comprehensive marketing and public relations plan.”20 There should be cooperation between teachers, principals, and the pastor to foster and meet stakeholders’ needs relating to learning, administration, and faith. Furthermore, there needs to be an accurate database of all Adventist homes in the community to make communication with these families easier for the marketing and recruitment teams. And last, schools should focus on sharing the values and uniqueness of Adventist education to highlight their essential attributes in contrast to local schools.
Organizations such as Grace Works, Christian Education Matters, and School Growth offer their services for a fee to assist schools in developing and implementing school marketing plans.21 The Northern California Conference has employed a marketing specialist, Carol Nash, to educate school leaders about the marketing cycle and to guide schools through the process. Additionally, Nash sends out a weekly e-mail highlighting a recommended marketing action. An archive of the marketing tasks, organized by month, is available in the Marketing Corner under “Ongoing Tasks” of the Northern California Conference’s education website.22 Three common themes emerge from a review of these programs, which serve as the foundation for any marketing action plan: Create a marketing team, gather and review data, and communicate.
1. Create a marketing team. The first phase of the action plan is to create a marketing team. Building a team will ensure shared responsibility for the implemented marketing efforts. Anderson and Thayer et al. promote the need for collaboration between schools and churches.23 The team should consist of the principal and various school stakeholders such as board members, parents, pastor, church members, and community members. Nash recommends recruiting a “cheerleader” to serve as a team member—someone who is excited about the school but is not directly affiliated with academic outcomes. An arrangement such as this allows the cheerleader to praise the school’s initiatives without appearing to be bragging.24
2. Gather and review data. Phase 2 is to gather and review data. While surveys provide one format for data collection, other methods (e.g., focus groups, interviews, and informal communication) may also be used. At first, the data should focus on retaining students by developing loyal families. Then, the school can shift to recruiting new students primarily through the word-of-mouth recommendations of loyal families and constituents.
Acknowledging parent feedback is vital in developing an ongoing marketing cycle that encourages parental participation. The results from the ASH surveys indicated high loyalty among parents with children enrolled at ASH during the 2020-2021 academic year (Figure 2). During this phase of the marketing cycle, the team and school board can review the school’s identity (i.e., the school’s mission and vision statements) to strengthen and clarify its image. In addition to a mission statement, ASH could consider identifying the core values of the school that can be promoted through the various communication platforms to provide clear and memorable information. By asking what Adventist parents, the targeted consumer, want, the school board can then compare the parents’ wishes with the school’s mission and resources to prioritize the ongoing development of a school-wide improvement plan that will meet the needs of the students and their families both now and in the future.25
Though the sample size was small, a yield of more than 60 percent of ASH’s families were considered in this study. Our findings revealed that the ASH parents felt the school was safe and provided caring teachers. Overall, the parents identified themselves as loyal to the school; however, their loyalty had not yet translated into the positive promotions of the school associated with increased enrollment. It was recommended that the school board initiate a referral award to provide a financial incentive to families who recruit new students. For example, the school could offer a free month of tuition for recruiting a new student who enrolls and stays for the school year. The incentive would be applied to the final tuition payment of the school year.
3. Communicate. The marketing team must create opportunities to communicate the mission and values of the school, and how ASH meets the needs of students and their families (i.e., teaching religious beliefs in a safe environment with caring teachers). The marketing team should emphasize the importance of sharing the school’s story.
At the same time, the “cheerleader” inspires parents, pastors, church members, and community members to promote current information and thus provide free word-of-mouth advertising.26 When creating publications for the website, social-media posts, newsletters, radio ads, and other forms of mass communication, the messaging should be consistent. Including a call to action with the communication is also vital to initiate inquiries.27
Based on the results of the surveys, the evaluators made three main recommendations for ASH. The first was to create a marketing team to share the responsibility for growing the school. Second, ASH should initiate a recruiting scholarship to inspire loyal parents to promote the school. And third, ASH should create a system for tracking results to generate data to drive future decisions. Small Adventist schools seeking to evaluate their marketing strategies can begin by going through a similar process using data-driven decision making to improve marketing efforts. Progress must be clearly communicated, results need to be tracked to generate additional data, and the process repeated year after year to meet the expanding needs of a vibrant and growing school.
After completing the study, the evaluation team learned that the enrollment of ASH has increased during the pandemic; however, the cause of this was beyond the scope of the study. Future evaluators may seek to determine if the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an increase in enrollment.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
Heidi M. Jorgenson et al., “Loyalty, Loyalty, Loyalty: Using Data-driven Decision-making to Improve Enrollment,” The Journal of Adventist Education 83:3 (2021): 24-30.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- Mid-America Union Conference Office of Education, e-mail message to author, September 15, 2021.
- North American Division Office of Education, “Adventist Education Statistics 2021-2022 by Year” (2021): https://adventisteducation.org/stat.html; Aimee Leukert, “Adventist Choices: The Relationship Between Adventist Culture and Adventist Education, Part 1,” The Journal of Adventist Education 82:3 (July-September 2020): 28: https://jae.adventist.org/2020.82.3.5; Philip Mainda, “Selected Factors Influencing School Choice Among the Seventh-day Adventist Population in Southwest Michigan,” Journal of Research on Christian Education 11:2 (2002): 185-218; Shane Anderson, How to Kill Adventist Education and How to Give It a Fighting Chance (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2009), 12-14; Jerome Thayer et al., “Strengthening Adventist Education in the North American Division: Recommendations for Educators,” The Journal of Adventist Education 79:3 (April-June 2017): 32.
- Chung-Kai Li and Chi-Hung Hung, “Marketing Tactics and Parents’ Loyalty: The Mediating Role of School Image,” Journal of Educational Administration 47:4 (2009): 477-489, 484.
- The research team consisted of five doctoral students at a large, Midwest flagship institution. We selected ASH as a study location for a program evaluation course. Two team members have experience leading educational programs within the Adventist educational system; one is a current teaching principal for an Adventist school, and the other was an Adventist teacher for several years. The remaining three researchers work in public higher education environments.
- Li and Hung, “Marketing Tactics and Parents’ Loyalty: The Mediating Role of School Image,” 484.
- Mainda, “Selected Factors Influencing School Choice Among the Seventh-day Adventist Population in Southwest Michigan,” 196.
- Thayer et al., “Strengthening Adventist Education in the North American Division: Recommendations for Educators,” 32.
- Anderson, How to Kill Adventist Education and How to Give It a Fighting Chance, 41.
- Thayer et al., "Strengthening Adventist Education in the North American Division: Recommendations for Educators,” 33.
- ASH teaching principal, e-mail to the lead researcher, October 24, 2021.
- Li and Hung, “Marketing Tactics and Parents’ Loyalty: The Mediating Role of School Image,” 488, 489.
- Masood A. Badri and Jihad Mohaidat, “Antecedents of Parent-based School Reputation and Loyalty: An International Application,” The International Journal of Educational Management 28:6 (2014): 635-654; Kâre Skallerud, “School Reputation and Its Relation to Parents’ Satisfaction and Loyalty,” The International Journal of Educational Management 25:7 (2011): 671-686.
- Li and Hung, “Marketing Tactics and Parents’ Loyalty: The Mediating Role of School Image,” 488, 489.
- Ibid., 480.
- Carol Nash, “Marketing Corner,” Northern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists website: https://nccsda.com/education/marketing-corner/; Marie K. Compas-Polo, “Marketing Adventist Education: Ways to Fight Declining Enrollment,” Joshua Tree Marketing: https://crae.lasierra.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2015/10/compas-polo-marie-k.pdf.
- Thayer et al., “Strengthening Adventist Education in the North American Division: Recommendations for Educators.”
- Graceworks Ministries: Christian: https://graceworksministries.org//enrollment-marketing-coaching/; Christian Education Matters.com; Christian Education Matters Programs and Presentations: https://www.christianeducationmatters.com/programs; School Growth: Enrollment Strategy: https://www.schoolgrowth.com/sg-enrollment-strategy.
- Northern California Conference Department of Education: Marketing Corner.
- Anderson, How to Kill Adventist Education and How to Give It a Fighting Chance; Thayer et al.. “Strengthening Adventist Education in the North American Division: Recommendations for Educators.”
- Carol Nash, “Recruit a Cheerleader: Finding Someone to Brag About Your School Without Bragging”: https://nccsda.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/tip04-recruit_a_cheerleader.pdf.
- Compas-Polo, “Marketing Adventist Education: Ways to Fight Declining Enrollment.”
- Carol Nash, “Add a ‘Call to Action’ to Every Page: Making It Easy for Interested Parents to Respond”: https://nccsda.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/tip170617-website_2.pdf.