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?