There is constant talk of a tuition crisis, of the growing number of yeshiva and day school parents – and potential parents – who say that full tuition or anything close to it is beyond their financial reach. Recently completed research I conducted for the Avi Chai Foundation of Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox day school enrollment points to a loss of students that, while perhaps attributable to other factors, is certainly in large measure due to more parents deciding that a day school education is too costly.
There is a new Boston-area initiative that seeks to attract children from day school families in kindergarten through the fifth grade. The children would attend public school in the morning and part of the afternoon and then be enrolled in an afterschool program that presumably would be far more intensive in its Judaic studies than the typical congregational supplementary school. This is but one of a number of developments that in the aggregate may affect a significant portion of the day school world.
From a family and communal perspective, what the tuition crisis means is that there are children who will not receive a day school education, increasing the likelihood that their Jewish future will be significantly diminished. From the school’s perspective, the loss of students is translated inevitably into a loss of income, which, in turn, exacerbates the financial difficulties confronting many of our schools.
In the fervently Orthodox sectors of Jewish life, there is scant likelihood of students dropping out entirely because of high tuition. There are children who are shifted from school to school by their parents who seek to evade tuition obligations. There are schools that wrongfully turn away scholarship applicants. There are also an indeterminate number of Orthodox children, perhaps primarily from fervently Orthodox homes, who are home-schooled, with tuition being a critical but not necessarily the only factor triggering this option.
Enrollment continues to climb in yeshiva world and chassidic schools because of high fertility. In these schools, the tuition crisis is manifested in a greater number of parents seeking tuition reduction and, tellingly, in some parents not making the tuition payments they agreed to when their children were registered.
The designation of a situation as a crisis is meant to indicate that there is no ready solution around the corner, that the problem that needs to be addressed is either intractable or cannot be dealt with without painful or risky consequences. The notion of a tuition crisis is not a recent coinage; it has been talked about for more than a decade. There have been conferences and speeches and much more. For all the talk, the situation is worsening.
The financial challenges confronting our schools have intensified, in large part because expenses have risen at a time when a sour economic environment has meant a decline in contributions, as well as more parents being unemployed or under-employed. In some schools there has been a decline in income from government programs, a decline that is itself attributable to the economic downturn.
How should our schools respond to the financial pressures they face, many on a daily basis? It’s certain they need to have tuition arrangements that require parents to pay their fair share. But what is a fair share? Tuition and its collection are not scientific exercises for which easy to implement formulas are available. Sooner or later, the notion of fair tuition runs into tough realities, at least in schools that are not cold and uncaring, and do not tell parents of lesser or low income that if you cannot pay the full tariff or nearly close to it, send your children elsewhere.
What are schools to do when parents and school officials disagree about how much should be charged? Is it acceptable for the school not to accept the children? What is to be done when parents shirk their tuition responsibilities?
Tuition issues vary, often radically, from school to school. At the high end, meaning many Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox institutions, fair tuition is another way of saying high tuition and, invariably, limited scholarship availability. A pool of money is set aside each year for scholarship assistance and applicants must compete to get a share of the pie. Low-income and even middle-income families sense there is a “do not apply” sign hung on the front door of the school building.
These are generally schools that engage in limited fundraising, except perhaps in connection with the annual dinner or for building purposes. They are not, however, entirely immune from the tuition crisis, as they are experiencing pressure from parents whose economic situation has worsened or who have concluded that the standard formula of yearly tuition increases is something they can no longer afford or won’t sacrifice other priorities for, including expensive vacations, summer camping and home improvements.