Moving the Needle on Affordability

Kahn illustration

More Families Are Struggling with Affordability 

New York is home to more students who attend Jewish day schools and yeshivot than anywhere else in the country. Tuition at New York day schools increases approximately 3% per year and can reach north of $40,000 or even $50,000. As tuition rises and the total bill, including costs such as scholarship fees and security fees, also rises, so too does the number of families requiring tuition assistance. In fact, at the end of 2021, it is estimated that New York Jewish day schools and yeshivot saw an average rise of over 10 percent in tuition assistance requests for the 2021-22 school year from just three years ago. And for too long, we’ve seen families hesitant to explore the day school system because of a lack of affordability. Schools are balancing meeting the affordability needs of families while also seeking ways to become more financially sustainable. 

Recent data shows that 51% of families in New York day schools and yeshivot receive tuition assistance, including both low- and middle-income families. The increasing financial challenge facing day schools leaves them in a conundrum: How can they meet the demand for excellent (and expensive) academics while facing an affordability crisis marked by increasing scholarship requests?

Over the years, New York day schools have met the affordability challenge through interventions, including providing scholarship to families in need, investing in academic excellence to drive recruitment and retention of families, and more recently building endowments to help secure longer-term financial sustainability. While New York day schools and yeshivot have received annual government funding in targeted areas such as STEM education, security and, increasingly, universal Pre-K programs, government funding to significantly reduce a family’s tuition bill from year to year remains a long-term goal. 

As much as schools and communities have recognized the “affordability issue” in the past two decades, the recent dramatic increase in costs due to inflation and the impact of Covid on enrollment for some schools is creating a sense of urgency for schools to explore solutions. School leaders often are forced to fundraise for “special projects” such as needed capital improvements, all while tuition assistance as a percentage of the annual budget has increased dramatically since 2008. 

Three New York Initiatives

New York features a wide range of day schools and yeshivot, distinct in terms of geography, size and culture, which are at vastly different points on their journey to address the affordability challenge. Two recent studies, Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the Covid-19 Pandemic by Prizmah and The Finances of Orthodox Jewish Life: A Nishma Research Study, along with UJA-Federation of New York data collection, suggest that different school cultures and goals will dictate different approaches to affordability. Here we discuss three initiatives that directly helped schools close the affordability gap. 

Fund for Jewish Education 

For 44 years, through the Fund for Jewish Education, funded by UJA together with the Caroline and Joseph Gruss Life Monument Funds, UJA has helped over 150 schools retain high-quality educators through competitive packages including life insurance, medical insurance and pension plans for over 6,000 teachers at day schools and yeshivot. With the current shrinking of the teacher pipeline, continuing to support schools’ ability to keep exceptional educators remains a priority. This funding relieves stress on the budget bottom line, freeing up dollars to be used for other important work within the school. 

Day School Challenge Fund 

In 2014, UJA created the $50 million Day School Challenge Fund initiative, powered by a matching pool to provide incentives for day schools and yeshivot to become more financially viable by building school endowments at UJA. The result of this challenge fund is approximately $84 million in endowments for the benefit of day schools and yeshivot. Eighteen New York schools participating in the program receive annual distributions from the endowments created in the initiative. The participating schools recognize that the endowment funds help secure their long-term financial health. While the endowment was not created for a pandemic, DSCF schools shared that having an one helped them get through the difficult economic times. 

DSCF participants report that the initiative started to change endowment-raising norms within individual schools and that the match was the key factor motivating donors to give to the endowment. For example, one school increased the value of its endowment fund fourfold. Beyond the match, schools indicated that the structured program and deliverables, including “homework” between campaign strategy sessions, kept them focused on the four critical elements for campaign success: building the case for support, mobilizing professional staff and effectively engaging lay leadership, identifying prospects, and developing a comprehensive and realistic campaign plan.

As all the funds have been raised under the DSCF matching program, UJA now offers a new opportunity for NY day schools and yeshivot to invest their own newly raised endowment funds in UJA’s recently established Jewish Institutions Investment Fund, a charitable pooled fund that also invests UJA’s endowment, benefiting schools by creating access to best-in-class investment managers and strong governance. 

Takeaways shared by DSCF schools include that once a school community sees the endowment dollars directly impacting the budget’s bottom line, the school is better positioned to raise even more money. Day school boards are learning that a skilled and dedicated development director (one who is not tasked with numerous additional job functions such as marketing, admissions and communications) nets a positive ROI. 

Tuition Affordability Models 

Most experts predict that, unfortunately, tuition rates will continue to rise. The average tuition at private schools has risen by 50% over the past decade. Day school tuition is poised to mirror a similar trend. Currently, 51% of all families in New York day schools and yeshivot receive some level of tuition assistance and about 21% of those families receive more than a 50% reduction in tuition. 

Over the last decade, only half a dozen schools have launched a tuition affordability program. This is not enough to move the needle on affordability in New York. To address this growing affordability crisis for families, this past July UJA engaged Prizmah to lead a workshop intended to deepen school leadership’s knowledge, expertise and skills necessary to explore the benefits of new tuition models that align with their enrollment and financial goals. 

Over two days, 18 schools (serving K-8 and K-12 and nearly 12,500 students) shared strategies to bridge the affordability gap. Key areas for focus included socioeconomic realities for families and what constitutes “middle income” and eligibility. One of the most compelling highlights shared during the training included two presentations that showed how the middle-income model can work. Several participants cited as compelling Westchester Day School’s income-based tuition cap program and the formula that the school employs. (For a closer look at this initiative, see article in this issue of HaYidion.) The attendees at the workshop appreciated learning about the program’s benefits, such as providing increased predictability of tuition assistance awards to families. The presentation by Greater MetroWest NJ Federation outlined its community model of middle-income affordability, and its impacts on the school and its community. The case studies helped inspire some of the schools to consider exploring a program for themselves. 

Since the workshop, several schools are developing or have demonstrated interest in developing new pathways to address the challenges. One school is working on developing a middle-income program to increase its appeal to those families who might be deterred by the price of tuition and are disinclined to apply for tuition assistance. Leaders at another school is thinking through how they might increase their student body diversity through the use of a tuition-reduction program. 


Affordability is a multifaceted challenge in need of a multifaceted set of solutions. Excellent educations are “table stakes” (to borrow a phrase from poker) these days for Jewish day schools and yeshivot, and they increase the perceived value of the tuition paid. Capacity utilization—increased enrollment—helps to manage operating expenses per student and thus reduces the pressure to raise tuition. Endowments provide long-term financial support for scholarships for families with a range of incomes. 

There is no silver bullet to “solve” the affordability crisis. But since it is our collective responsibility to ensure that we transmit our tradition and values from generation to generation (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1), we must strategize, plan and attract new investors to the day school system, all with the objective of yielding sustainable day schools and yeshivot for years to come. 

As schools continue to clarify their strategic priorities, they can capitalize on the opportunity to accommodate a wider range of families. UJA envisions developing new learning opportunities for school leadership to explore strategies to deepen their school’s financial sustainability while at the same time meeting the financial needs of parents. We are grateful to the schools that have begun this effort and look forward to working with more schools to promote accessibility for many families, elevating the community and learning experience for all to thrive in New York day schools and yeshivot.

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Fall 2022 Affordability
Fall 2022
Hadar ad 1
Hadar ad 2