Crisis of Affordability: The Value Proposition and Cost of an Excellent Day School

By Steve Freedman

[Note: Following, is one example of many being implemented at day schools to deal with the “tuition challenge.” The approach Hillel Day School implemented was truly a test case – advocated by Pat Bassett, the former President of National Association of Independent Schools. The school was also fortunate to secure a funder willing to invest $15 million in this endeavor.]

As the school recruitment cycle kicks into high gear in this new year of 2015, almost every news feed these days includes a conversation on the value and worth of a day school education. And it’s no wonder: on average, 50 percent of parents reconsider their decision each year. Foremost on their minds is the cost of tuition. Just this week, the trending subject on Jewish publications, blogs and social media networks was the “crisis of affordability,” with some people feeling priced out of a day school education.

There is no going around it. Day school education is costly. While the median salary for Americans has remained stagnant since 1989, at just over $51,000, tuition has quadrupled. At Hillel, tuition in 1989 cost $4,300. Today, it stands at $17,900.

Then, as now, a high percentage of a family’s annual income is required today to send a child to a Jewish day school. I remember, when I was living in Philadelphia in the 1990s, a colleague said her shore home and new kitchen could be found in the day school tuitions for her three children. She and her husband, a successful doctor, had made a values choice. They represented thousands of Jewish families who made – and continue to make – significant sacrifices to send their children to day schools, not matter the cost.

There is a reason day school tuition has skyrocketed. Over the past few decades Jewish day schools have professionalized their institutions. At Hillel, our facilities are state of the art, especially with the most recent addition of the Audrey and Bill Farber I.D.E.A. Collaborative. All of our students benefit from our 1:1 technology program. Our first through fourth grades have two general studies teachers in each classroom, bringing individualized and differentiated instruction to a whole new level in these critical, early years. We have invested in a large educational resource staff, led by our Dean of Student Learning, an educational psychologist, to meet the needs of learners on both ends of the spectrum. We have invested in a well-integrated and vigorous Judaic Studies program, the reason for our existence in the first place.

Most of all, we invest in our faculty – the critical link to the success of our school and any school. To attract competent and committed teachers, Hillel must be competitive, and we are. Our teachers rightfully earn competitive salaries and receive customary benefits. Like most schools, salaries and benefits account for 80 percent of the operating budget. Excellent teachers, combined with a conducive environment for learning, technology as an essential tool in this century, enriching programs both during and after school, are all costly.

But the price is worthwhile. Our students finish Hillel ready for high school and beyond, and most of all, graduate knowing who they are, and able to navigate the world through a Jewish lens. Just this year, our graduates have been sworn into the Michigan House of Representatives, and been named to the Forbes Magazine 30 Under 30 List. These results are priceless, especially for families who believe in their core that a Jewish education is a value worth paying for in the first place!

But how much of a monetary sacrifice is too much? This is the urgent issue being discussed now, and why many communities are trying innovative approaches to mitigate the cost increases. Some states go through their legislature, trying to secure a tax credit for taxes paid to support public schools; other schools offer scholarships, sliding scale tuition, raise communal funds, and come up with other creative solutions to solve the crisis in affordability.

Few have done what Hillel can offer, and we hope that other cities will follow suit. For Hillel is leading the way to implement affordability models for Jewish day school education. In partnership with a major local foundation, the Hillel Tuition Grant program not only insures that tuition will never be higher than the first year a child enters Hillel, but will actually decrease in each subsequent year. This grant is directed to parents who pay full tuition because they are not eligible for tuition assistance. The grant program is for students in grades 1 – 8. Each year, through eighth grade, the value of the grant goes up by $1,000.

Hillel families who opted into the grant this year saw savings: the tuition of $17,975 only cost them $16,975. In 2015-16, while tuition will be $18,515, families already in the grant program will pay only $16,515 – a savings of $540 over last year’s tuition and $2,000 below the actual cost. (Learn more about the grant program in the infographic below.)

The two central goals of the grant program are to make tuition predictable for families and to actually decrease tuition the longer a family stays at Hillel as recognition of the value they see in a Jewish day school education. Ours is a replicable model – and we hope leaders in other cities where foundations share the value of a day school education as this foundation does will follow our example.

Thankfully, for those requiring more assistance than the grant provides, there is significant funding available. In Detroit, day school education is seen as a communal responsibility. As such, our Detroit Jewish Federation allocates over 1.1 million dollars annually to the school, and an anonymous donor provides the school with an additional $500,000 annually. That, along with fundraising enables the school to provide over 2.5 million dollars in tuition assistance to eligible families.

At Hillel, our goal is for families to always pay for tuition in a way that is most affordable for them. For example, if a family has received tuition assistance and the grant program becomes the greater value for the family, it will be automatically transferred into the grant program.

Nevertheless, for most Jewish families, sending their children to a Jewish day school will require some sacrifices – it always has. At Hillel we are doing everything possible to make it financially feasible for any family desiring the education we provide.

Steve Freedman is Head of School, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.