thr high cost of school

Buying down day school tuition for the Jewish future

As rising costs of Jewish day schools are outpacing inflation and tuition becomes  financially prohibitive, exciting programs are being initiated to help make day schools more affordable. Grants across North America in cities such as San Diego, West Hartford and Toronto ‘buy down’ the high cost of day schools by subsidizing tuition for all students. 

Since the early 1990’s, studies have confirmed that attending Jewish day school has the greatest impact on both Jewish continuity and Jewish engagement. Those same studies confirm that attending Jewish high school has more impact than going through just elementary and/or middle school. 

The concept of buying down tuition is not new. In 1994, The Samis Foundation in Seattle was created by Sam Israel z”l  with a primary mission of supporting Jewish K-12 education in Washington State. Foundation trustees did extensive research and commissioned studies into maximizing Foundation dollars to benefit local day schools. Within a year, led by several visionary trustees, the Foundation initiated a bold measure to buy down tuition at the then only Jewish high school in Washington State, Northwest Yeshiva High School (NYHS).  

In 1996, before the Block Grant was launched, annual tuition at NYHS was $7150 with 57 students in the school.  From 1996 – 2001, annual tuition was lowered to $3000 which was based on findings from a study asking 500 families what they would be willing to pay. (Block Grant Analysis 1999) The Foundation and the school hoped for increased enrollment. The actual increase was significantly larger than anyone predicted: in just four years enrollment doubled and eventually peaked at 132 students. 

Students graduating from both the Orthodox and the community Jewish middle schools continued their day school education into high school at a much higher rate than they had before. The number of non-Orthodox graduates from the Orthodox middle school who continued on to high school increased from 19% to 50%. Teens who would have gone to public schools came to NYHS in high numbers. NYHS was the rare Orthodox high school with a denominationally diverse student body. In 1999, NYHS surveyed its parents and found that 35% would have sent their children to public school had it not been for the tuition grant (P. 24 Goodman & Tammivaara)

The model was not financially sustainable. Tuition was lower and led to more students, but expenses increased as NYHS added courses, sections and extracurricular options to accommodate a growing and diverse student body. The grant was set up to fund a projected number of students. When the actual number of students exceeded the projected number, the grant was not increased on a per student basis. The rush to begin the project meant that financial planning to create sustainability had been overlooked.   

When the Block Grant ended in 2001, NYHS  knew that they couldn’t ask parents for a sudden, massive tuition increase to make up for grant money they were no longer receiving and delayed a significant increase until 2008. Tuition remained artificially low and while NYHS continued to benefit from robust enrollment, they amassed a large deficit that took seven years to resolve. 

Six months later, the economy crashed. Across the city, enrollment at all Jewish schools declined. NYHS felt a profound impact. Tuition increased to ensure fiscal stability but as tuition rose, enrollment, once again, declined. The percentage of students coming from public schools dropped. Feeder schools became smaller and middle schools shrunk. 

Across the country, the day school world bemoans enrollment declines. In Seattle, the Jewish community has doubled since 2001, while our Jewish schools, across all grade levels and affiliations, have an all time low enrollment.     

Fellow day school leaders and I spent years analyzing what was happening. We bought into the notion that if day school quality was high (it was and is), parents would be willing to pay the true cost, like parents who sent their children to independent schools. What we didn’t understand is that Jewish day schools don’t function like non-parochial independent schools.  

In the Jewish world, there are many highly subsidized programs including camps and Israel experiences. We know that when the cost of entry drops, impactful touch points are enjoyed by a wider range and larger number of children.  Why is access to day school perceived  differently from other Jewish touch points? Why do we expect parents to pay a much higher percentage of their income for day school than for Jewish camp? The price of day school is higher than other Jewish touch points. Reducing the cost of day schools requires a higher investment by donors and communities, and philanthropic dollars don’t go as far. But if we fail to invest in day schools, what is the social cost?  Day schools are an expensive investment but they have long term proven returns.

Twenty years after the Block Grant ended we see that the years of robust enrollment have had an immensely positive and deep impact on our Jewish community. Samis trustee Victor Alhadeff is able to look back and say that the program was a “…screaming success. Those kids maintained a Jewish identity.” While up to 50% of the students at NYHS during the time of the Block Grant were non-orthodox, the intermarriage rate of graduates is a mere 3%. Nationally, day school graduates attending seven to twelve years have a 10% intermarriage rate. The average intermarriage rate in the United States is 58%.    

Intermarriage is only one measure of Jewish continuity. A look at the ‘next step’ records of NYHS alumni show high percentages of former students who majored or minored in Jewish studies, work in Jewish organizations and education, take leadership roles in their communities, advocate for Israel on college campuses and in society, served in the IDF, made aliyah and contribute to worldwide Jewry in profound ways. 

This one, five year experiment that radically reduced tuition for all students worked spectacularly well to grow enrollment at a small Seattle high school and bred a generation of Jewishly committed and educated adults. As we look to our future, both for day schools in our communities and the children who attend them, we must re-examine and celebrate this tremendous success for Jewish continuity while working together and conquering the challenges of financial sustainability. 

 Deanne Weiss Etsekson is a long-term board member, president, community leader, former member of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet and a Wexner Heritage fellow and can be reached at: detsekson@gmail.com