Simplifying the Tuition Process Creates Trust and Goodwill

Lauchheimer illustration

The cost to educate a child in any school system is significant. The average cost for a public school student easily exceeds $20,000 in New York. Jewish day schools, which provide a dual curriculum to students, face a double burden. In the absence of governmental support, tuition needs to cover costs, which keep rising. 

The largest driver of a school’s budget are personnel costs. While trimming administrative and non-educational staff may yield some savings, they are hardly significant enough to make a meaningful difference in tuition rates.

Rather than trying to lower tuition through cost-saving mechanisms, which leads to numerous unappealing choices, schools need to focus on enrolling more children in Jewish day schools. In most communities, there is no shortage of children to fill the schools. The question is how to entice those families for whom price is a barrier to entry. 

Improving an Invasive Experience

While the majority of Jewish day schools preach that no student will be turned away due to a lack of funds, the path to ultimately figuring out what those families can pay involves an invasive and intrusive process. If you have never read your own school’s scholarship application, I encourage you to do so. It will be an eye-opening experience and probably leave you feeling a bit queasy. And it also will make it easier to understand why many families opt out of the Jewish day school system and go to public school. Families who are made to feel as though they are begging and need to disclose how much they spend a month on cable will, at a certain point, simply walk out and pick an education that they are already paying for via their tax dollars.

The solution lies not in how much (or how little) tuition is set by the schools but rather how the school’s tuition needs are met. Doing so, though, requires a leap of faith.

In 2019, Westchester Day School took that leap. Through the efforts of lay and professional leaders, we implemented a tuition scale that is set as a percentage of a family’s reported adjusted gross income (as reported on IRS Form 1040). This program is available to families with an income range of $150,000-$450,000. The percentage scale ranges from 10%-20%, depending on the reported income. The program is available to families regardless of the number of children they enroll in our school.

The formula created was the result of an intensive yearlong study. It is based largely on anonymized historical scholarship data demonstrating that, absent extenuating circumstances, most families are able and willing to pay these amounts. WDS families now can do so without submitting a scholarship application; they need only submit their Form 1040 to verify their income. 

The program also takes Jewish high school tuition into account; WDS expects a family to pay only the school’s pro-rata share of the family’s income-based tuition cap. For example, if the family’s default obligation to WDS is $50,000 and its obligation to a Jewish high school is $25,000, WDS merely asks that the family pay 50/75 (or two-thirds) of its income-based capped tuition amount to WDS, with the remainder presumptively earmarked for high school tuition.

Keeping with the theme of a creating a user-friendly experience, we designed and built a tuition calculator for the school’s website, allowing parents to plug in their adjusted gross income (AGI), the grades in which their children will be enrolled at WDS and any Jewish high schools their older children will attend, to determine their tuition obligation to WDS.

The program has two built-in fail-safes. First, the scholarship committee reviews all applications for any red flags in the 1040 itself or based on information available in the community. For example, a family reporting a negative AGI would be a red flag. In the event the committee flags an application, families are invited to provide an explanation as to the circumstances of the information contained in the 1040. 

Second, the available discount is capped at 40% of a family’s tuition obligation, as a compromise between the competing values of streamlining the process for as many families as possible and recognizing that AGI is not always the exclusive factor in determining what a family can reasonably afford. Discounts larger than 40% remain available through the traditional scholarship process.

Changed Systems, Changed Relationships

Since the program was implemented, we have been able to dramatically reduce the number of families that go through the traditional scholarship process. In addition, a number of families that switched from traditional scholarship to our AGI program ended up paying slightly more in tuition based on the AGI formula. They likely did so in order to avoid the invasiveness of the traditional scholarship process. As a result, families receive assistance similar to that available through our traditional scholarship program but in a way that consistently reinforces a positive relationship between our families and the school.

When we launched the AGI program, a number of lay leaders expressed concern that we would lose money, or worse, be taken advantage of by families who had never previously applied for scholarship but who fell within the AGI band we established. One person went so far as to claim that the program would cause financial ruin to the school. 

Fortunately, none of those predictions came to fruition. The thinking behind them was based on a view of tuition being an adversarial system. By making tuition a collaborative and rational process, families were provided with dignity and respect, which in turn created trust between the school and its families.

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