How Tree of Life Christian is Marketing Their School’s Affordability

During the past several years, I have had the opportunity to partner with the team at Tree of Life Christian Schools in Columbus, OH, through my Enrollment Catalyst Program. I have seen their explosive enrollment growth and outstanding work.

As they have always focused on implementing innovative strategies, the topic of marketing their school’s affordability has been an important focus. And now, with the latest legislation, most families in Ohio are eligible for a sizeable scholarship. This is similar to legislation in other states throughout the United States.

Recently, I interviewed their team about their approach to marketing the affordability of a Tree of Life Christian Schools’ education. I hope you enjoy this interview with:

  • Yohana Hill, Chief Advancement Officer
  • Mark Sherrod, Director of Marketing
  • Laura Aldag, Director of Enrollment

Let’s begin with some background on your enrollment growth over the past five years or so. How has your enrollment grown and how have you accommodated the additional students?

During the 2017-2018 school year, Tree of Life Christian School, in Columbus, OH, had approximately 550 students. In the next two enrollment seasons, we focused a lot on lead nurturing through automated emails and online tour scheduling. By the 2019-20 school year, 625 students were enrolled. Being able to be open both in-person and online during the pandemic allowed us to grow to 763 for 20-21 and again to 938 in 21-22. We joke that we have never been a school of 800 students—because we skipped right over it!

We have been blessed to have enough capacity to grow during this time without having to turn away right-fit families and nearly doubling enrollment. This did, however, put a lot of pressure on facilities and staff, and going forward we saw a need to expand.

In 2024, we will be opening a new building and separating middle and high schools on two different campuses. In 2025, we will be opening a new wing of classrooms to expand our elementary capacity. In all, our capacity will increase from 1000 students (with an enrollment of 985) to 1300.

The state of Ohio recently passed legislation to give families greater access to private education through its Ed Choice Scholarship. Can you explain this program and how this benefits parents interested in your school?

The State of Ohio has offered different versions of the EdChoice Scholarship since 2005. Originally, the program was designed to offer non-public school scholarships to students living within failing school districts. Since then, the program has expanded to include low-income families in all districts. In the summer of 2023, the State passed a universal expansion to the program that allows every student in Ohio to receive a portion of the scholarship. Awarded amounts are income-based, with families below 450% of FPL receiving the full scholarship ($6,165 for grades K-8 and $8,407 for grades 9-12).

The families that have benefited the most from the expansion are middle-income families. In previous years, they would not have qualified for a scholarship, and yet inflation was making it very hard for them to afford private school. It allows us to keep and attract these families as well as low and high-income families. This leads to greater economic diversity among our students- which has been a big positive for our school.

I like how you are communicating this program and the message of affordability on your website. How did you create your video that explains this program?

We recognized early on that we were going to have to do something to simplify and promote the new scholarship program. The state’s language is not the easiest for everyone to understand, so our goal was to make the program seem easy and friendly. We have used agencies and freelancers in the past, but the cost of these services was starting to be prohibited.

So, this time we chose to do the video ourselves. We used an online AI video creator to automate the process. It helped us finalize the script and automatically create an animated explainer video with voice-over. We still had to make the final touches for clarity and branding, but overall, it only took us a few hours and was a fraction of the cost of using an outside service.

You have also developed a form that provides a calculation of the potential award for the family. How did you create this? How will you use the results for your follow-up effort?

One of the challenges of Ohio’s EdChoice program is that it does not use brackets to determine income level. Instead, it uses a mathematical formula that produces a different scholarship amount for every household income amount. This means that we cannot simply display a chart. The state-provided chart for families is hundreds of rows long!

Once we were able to obtain the mathematical formula from a state official (and we brushed off our algebra skills), we were able to make a user-friendly calculator online through JotForm. We chose to capture email addresses, grade levels, and household income. Our team receives email updates of completed forms and will follow up after cross-referencing the email address with families that may already be in our system. It has also been helpful to see a snapshot of household income levels of interested families.

With the increased demand that this scholarship program will create, how will this alter your admissions process as you determine the right-fit families to admit?

The biggest thing for us is the extra training for our admissions staff. They must be clear about what makes a right-fit family, but also that they are confident in their answers and the process. Being able to speak clearly with truth and grace to families is important. At the recent GOTR conference, Andy Lynch talked about “not beating around the bush” with new families. That will be more of a part of our training going forward.

Marketing affordability is a key issue for all private schools. What advice do you have for other private schools that want to do more than list their tuition and fees?

Everything we do we try to look at it from a parent’s perspective. Parents are very busy and may not be as informed about private school tuition as our school staff. This means displaying everything as simple and defined as possible. Using design principles or color, font size, etc. helps emphasize the important details.

We spend more time looking at higher education examples for inspiration. We find that colleges and universities that are doing it well have a lot in common with private schools in how they message affordability, scholarships, and tuition. One practical piece of advice is to avoid burying tuition and fees online (especially in a PDF). It’s the elephant in the room that parents want and need to know. If they can’t find your tuition, they may just move on to a different option.

Check out the Tree of Life Christian School’s website to learn more about their approach to marketing affordability and through the EdChoice Scholarship Program.

Thanks, Yohana, Laura, and Mark for sharing your story and insights. Whether your state has a voucher/scholarship program or not, their advice is important to follow. Marketing your school’s affordability is critical to breaking through the price barrier to reach prospective families.