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Fighting The Tuition Crisis With Financially-Driven Parent Volunteer Programs

A recent CNN Money article focused on how more students than ever are requesting need-based financial aid from the private schools they attend. “Private schools are getting flooded with financial aid applications, and a growing number of the parents seeking help are earning $150,000 or more a year,” the article stated. It also pointed out that “overall, the average cost of tuition at private schools across all grades is nearly $22,000 a year, up 4% from a year ago and 26% higher than it was in the 2006-07 academic year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.”

To make matters worse for private day schools, the recession of the past few years has adversely affected the fundraising numbers in many of these schools, especially in the geographical areas hardest hit. And if that wasn’t bad enough, once again the Obama administration, for a fifth time has proposed lowering the income tax deduction for charitable giving. By decreasing the value of itemized tax deductions for higher-income taxpayers, the president’s proposal would weaken the incentive for the wealthy to give to private day schools and other non-profit organizations.

In light of these developments, schools must consider new and innovative ways to increase income and reduce costs in order to maintain financial stability and fiscal health. One approach that should be considered is to institute a parent volunteer program. There are many schools throughout the country that have established parent volunteer programs. However, the central purpose of many of these programs is to benefit the educational quality of the school. That’s the objective behind Three for Me, a national parent volunteer organization running in thousands of schools across the U.S.

While enhancing educational quality through parent volunteer efforts is certainly worthwhile, schools should consider making financial goals the primary objective of such a program. By using the time and efforts of the parent body, schools can effectively convert hundreds of parent-hours into thousands of dollars in revenue and savings – in essence, monetizing the massive amount of man-hours of the parent body.

Many school administrations are already overworked and understaffed, so in order for such a program to succeed it would need to be low maintenance and easy to manage. Further, in order to generate the necessary volunteer hours to have a financial impact, parent participation would need to be made obligatory (staff excluded). There is a case to be made for making participation voluntary for full paying families while making financial aid grants conditional on participation. It is not unreasonable to ask the beneficiaries of financial aid to give a small amount of their time back to the school each year. However, in many schools, the perceived disparity would be a non-starter.

A little over ten years ago, the school I manage instituted such a program. We made participation obligatory for all families receiving tuition assistance and voluntary for all full-paying families. Staff was exempt. The results of the program are compelling. From a pool of approximately 200 parent volunteers, annual gross revenue raised totals on average $170,000 while annual costs savings total on average $30,000. The program’s methodology has been fine-tuned over the years so that today not only has it become a vital part of our operating budget, it takes a relatively small amount of time to administer.

Either way, undertaking and implementing such a program is a serious commitment. While the program is not difficult to manage once it is up and running, it can be somewhat time consuming to establish. In addition, there is no doubt that many parents will be less than happy with this new obligation. But by having the parents give back a minimum of one or two hours each month, the increase in revenue and cost savings can bring great financial relief to the school especially in these very difficult economic times.

Finally, it should be pointed out that this is only part of an overall solution. Schools need to adapt many of the best practices in corporate management in order to grow and thrive. Foremost is implementing strong and effective internal and financial controls and then training the staff with the knowledge to execute these controls properly. This should be done in conjunction with establishing proper governance and long-term strategic planning with active parent involvement.

To whatever extent “business as usual” was ever working, there is now widespread recognition among day schools across the spectrum that it cannot continue. Such a sentiment has arrived not a moment too soon.

Jake (Yaakov) Goldstein is a CPA and part-time consultant for day schools and non-profit organizations. He is also the executive vice president of Torah Institute of Baltimore. He can be reached at jakegolds@gmail.com.

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A recent CNN Money article focused on how more students than ever are requesting need-based financial aid from the private schools they attend. “Private schools are getting flooded with financial aid applications, and a growing number of the parents seeking help are earning $150,000 or more a year,” the article stated. It also pointed out that “overall, the average cost of tuition at private schools across all grades is nearly $22,000 a year, up 4% from a year ago and 26% higher than it was in the 2006-07 academic year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.”

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