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August 23, 2014 / 27 Av, 5774
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Obsession With Tuition Hurts Jewish Education

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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.

Whether the tuition crisis is real in the sense that there are parents who are being shut out of the day school market or whether it is the result of misplaced parental financial priorities is an important question. Yet, from the standpoint of a school’s bottom line, it is essentially beside the point as a growing number of marginally Orthodox and marginally religious parents are considering other educational options. This is a development the impact of which is already felt in parts of the day school world, reversing the trend of enrollment growth that has prevailed since the early 1990s.

Likely, there are families moving away from a day school commitment that legitimately claim they cannot pay what is being charged, and there are also families that can pay the requested tuition but won’t.

How are yeshivas and day schools responding to the growing number of parents who cannot or will not pay anything close to full tuition? With about 250,000 students in the U.S., the Jewish day school world is a minor item in the statistics of elementary and secondary education. With more than 800 schools across the country that come in many sizes and orientation, how they approach financial matters varies greatly from school to school. We cannot speak in one breath of the tuition crisis and refer both to modern day schools that may charge $25,000 or even more annually and also to those fervently Orthodox institutions that are happy if the per-student tuition payments come to $4,000.

Schools that charge a low tuition invariably recognize that to close the budget gap and meet obligations, there needs to be a constant focus on fundraising. Although more than a few do not succeed as much as they need and want to, at least they make the effort and a good deal of the school income comes from contributions. This is especially true of the great number of yeshivas and girls schools sponsored by chassidic groups. They are not the ones we ordinarily have in mind when we speak of the tuition crisis.

That term refers to higher-charging schools, including in the yeshiva world sector. They are the ones claiming that what parents pay does not come near to closing the budget gap and that this gap is widening as more parents ask or even demand a large tuition break and there are more parents who do not pay the tuition they agreed to.

There are tuition cheats. There always have been and always will be. There is no way schools can eliminate this phenomenon unless they are willing to adopt harsh measures, including not accepting students whose families ask for significant assistance.

There are such schools, mainly but not exclusively, among the non-Orthodox. It’s interesting that even after these schools have shown their determination to crack down on those whom they regard as tuition cheats, they continue to bemoan the impact of the tuition crisis. For them, the crisis may be greater still because harsh policies almost always result in enrollment declines, which in turn means a decline in tuition income.

This is no defense of tuition cheats. They exist, are determined to outwit the institutions that educate their children, and are willing to lie to achieve their goal. But none of this justifies the obsession with tuition cheats and even with tuition collection. At too many schools an all-out effort is made to clamp down, even when clamping down means hurting children.

There are parents who seek and receive reductions in tuition and engage in behavior that, while not necessarily putting them in the ranks of cheats, raises difficult questions for school officials and, more broadly, for our community. We are, as Maimonides underscores, affected in our behavior and attitudes by the environment we are in. The American environment is highly consumer-driven and hedonistic. This translates, in turn, into the socio-psychological imperative of wanting and having luxuries and activities that we can easily do without, even when what one wants and acquires is beyond a one’s nominal economic means. Religious Jews are not immune from such behavior. We are affected by the society we are in and we contribute to the expansion of a hedonistic attitude within our own ranks.

The desire for a good life has powerful implications for tuition issues that go beyond what might be ordinarily designated as cheating. There are families of relatively modest means that believe applying for and receiving scholarship assistance is not antithetical to living according to upper middle class expectations. There are home improvements to be made and this means they must be made, even if making them puts a family into debt. There are persons who yearn for a luxury car or other expensive expenditures that place school officials and tuition committee members in a difficult spot.

The problem of how to square the imperative of a good life and tuition assistance is much on display this time of the year and also during Pesach when costly travel to vacation spots and hotels becomes the thing to do for many Orthodox families, including more than a few who are on tuition assistance. What are school officials to do when they learn that kids whose parents have requested reduced tuition are strolling down Arthur Godfrey Boulevard in Miami Beach?

This issue is tied to another lamentable phenomenon in contemporary Orthodox life: the sharp decline in the giving of tzedakah. There are, of course, persons who fulfill their tzedakah obligation, but let’s not kid ourselves. The giving of tzedakah is in decline in a frightening number of homes, a point already made more than a generation ago by Rav Moshe Feinstein. The situation surely has not improved since.

Let’s also acknowledge that for every dyed-in-the-wool tuition cheat, there are certainly many more parents who struggle honorably to meet their obligations at a time when they are also struggling to meet other critical needs. We need not be economists to recognize that an extraordinary number of religious Jewish families are relatively low income, even when both parents work. We ought not turn a blind eye to the cost of religious living or to how the steady increase in family size that has occurred throughout Orthodox life has added immensely to the financial pressure on many families and has a direct bearing on the ability to pay anything close to full tuition. This situation has worsened in recent years because of the economic downturn.

There is a second tuition crisis, arising from the obsessive and often excessive focus on tuition collection as the solution to a day school’s financial needs. I accept, albeit with a measure of reluctance, the notion that our schools must, except in the most obvious and severe cases of hardship, impose a minimum tuition requirement. When there is clear evidence of parents taking advantage of a school’s scholarship policy – they take lavish vacations or have expensive simchas or renovate their homes – it is appropriate for school officials to adopt a hard line.

A hard-line approach, however, must be tempered by the recognition that emotional and behavioral harm may be caused to children who, after all, are not responsible for their parents’ refusal to pay appropriate tuition or, for that matter, their parents’ indulgence in luxurious living. Although a school may refuse to admit or re-admit a student whose parents are shirking their tuition responsibilities, during the school year each child must be treated with dignity, irrespective of the parental failure to do the right thing. This means report cards must not be held back, and certainly it is wrong not to allow a child into the classroom during the school year because of a tuition issue. Again, no child is responsible for his or her parents’ wrongdoing.

I cannot sufficiently stress how misguided is the belief that the collection of more and more tuition is the only or primary solution to a school’s financial difficulties. Without a strong and ongoing emphasis on fundraising, the financial pain is likely to remain, even after the institution has gotten tough with parents.

Too many schools rely overly much on the annual dinner, and that rarely works. New sources of income must be explored and schools must make greater use of e-mail in their fundraising. Lay leaders must understand their role is not to show how tough they can be with parents and children, but to show how determined they can be in trying to raise the necessary funds. At the many schools – primarily in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors – where bylaw requirements severely limit the number of years a person can serve as president, the frequent change of leadership is a powerful formula for meager fundraising results.

I do not want to suggest that fundraising activities guarantee fundraising success, that money is out there for the asking. I know better from too much experience, including painful recent experience. Fundraising is hard work and too often unsuccessful. Too many people in our community who can contribute do not, and even among those of a charitable inclination, yeshivas and day schools are often low on the totem pole.

Just the same, if the effort is made, there will be rewarding results. As difficult as the fundraising environment is, it is not a justification for any religious Jewish school being cruel to children.

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years.


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2 Responses to “Obsession With Tuition Hurts Jewish Education”

  1. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The best way for Jews to deal with the tuition crisis is to make aliya. Jews belong in Eretz Yisrael. America is tanking economically and culturally. The future for Jews is in Israel. Period.

  2. Gary says:

    For a family with 3 kids tuition might be more than $75,000 a year, as opposed to $0 for a family where the kids all go to public school. Simply put, that’s insane, and even if both parents are earning what should be decent incomes is nore than enough to send the average middle class family into the poor house.

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