Good News on Alternative Tuition Programs
By Amy Adler and Dan Perla
The Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on Jewish day schools, increasing enrollment at some, forcing others into a virtual existence. It has also caused many schools to reexamine their tuition and fee structures.
About a decade ago, alternative tuition programs began to proliferate as individual schools, federations and donors realized that new, more creative approaches to tuition setting were necessary to underscore and demonstrate a clear commitment to day school affordability. Many of these first-generation tuition programs were based on the hypothesis that a lower tuition for targeted segments of a school population would lead to improvements in both recruitment and retention. While a handful of individual schools and federations introduced programs that significantly lowered tuition for all families, the majority of alternative tuition programs targeted specific cohorts of families through a needs-based approach.
Three years ago, Prizmah and Measuring Success undertook a study of these programs. The most common programs we examined included middle-income affordability programs, including income- cap programs; flexible or indexed tuition programs; non-needs-based tuition- reduction programs, and discounts for Jewish communal professionals. The primary purpose of the study was to assess the efficacy of these early programs in recruiting and retaining 10 more day school families. While the study results seemed to indicate that communally designed, donor-funded programs performed better than programs that were school-designed and lacked donor support, the results of the study were generally inconclusive and failed to establish causality between tuition reductions and enrollment growth.
One of the explanations for the study’s inconclusive findings was a lack of intentionality in program implementation. Our research found that many of the first generation programs were designed without clear data analysis, and sometimes without buy-in from the school’s leadership. Some of the programs were created solely in response to a donor’s wishes and were discontinued as soon as the donor became disenchanted with the program. Other programs lacked donor support altogether and were undertaken by schools with the mistaken belief that a rising enrollment would sustain the program financially. Such programs were often dropped within a year or two of their launch.
The design of more recent, second-generation tuition programs suggests that schools and communities are materially adapting their approach. These programs are notable for their embrace of data.
This includes both local and national data related to family income levels and scholarship, local and national data related to school satisfaction among existing parents, and local and national surveys related to perceptions of day schools. Second-generation programs are more likely to be backed by significant multiyear philanthropic support to allow time for the programs to succeed and for modifications to be made, if necessary. Alternative tuition programs at both San Diego Jewish Academy (SDJA) and Westchester Day School (WDS) are examples of this new, data-driven approach.
SDJA’s Open Door tuition program offers significant discounts for new families who enroll their children in entry-level grades: kindergarten, and ninth grades. SDJA conducted research and analyzed extensive family income data before launching their highly successful program. It commissioned an independent research firm to survey middle-income families in the San Diego area on their views of Jewish day school and tuition prices. The survey indicated that more than 1,100 Jewish families with school-age children in San Diego would consider a Jewish day school if its tuition was between $10,000 and $15,000. Based on its findings, SJDA lowered its tuition in entry-level grades to the mid-level of this range for new families. Three years in, the school credits the donor-funded program for its record enrollment.
WDS began to experiment with alternative tuition programs nearly a decade ago when it lowered tuition prices in some lower grades in an attempt to accelerate enrollment growth. Later on, the school created an income-based tuition cap program based on a more sophisticated, data-driven approach. Through the program, middle-income families can apply for up to 40% off full tuition based on a simple application. The school even developed an online tuition calculator so that families could easily project their tuition obligation with a few inputs and the click of a button.
Three years ago, TannenbaumCHAT, a community high school in Toronto, had two campuses and charged a tuition in excess of $28,000. The school was experiencing significant declines in enrollment and undertook a detailed survey of current and prospective day school families to understand the role that the school’s tuition price was playing in their enrollment decisions. The survey results suggested that many families would be interested in enrolling their children if tuition prices were more in line with middle school tuitions they were used to paying.
Based on this data, the high school announced the closing of its northern campus and lowered tuition prices at its southern campus by nearly 40%. The federation played a pivotal role in the program’s design and helped the school secure a multiyear, multimillion dollar gift to ensure the school’s financial stability. Enrollment at the school’s south campus has increased dramatically (over 25%) since the program’s inception, and the school has retained the overwhelming majority of its north campus students.
Where first-generation programs often took a needs-based approach to tuition discounts, many of the latest programs have lowered tuition either in entry-level grades or for all families, regardless of need. As an example, New England Jewish Academy (NEJA), in West Hartford, Connecticut, recently lowered its tuition for all families. While it is too early to determine the success of the effort, the school reports that early enrollment results are promising. Like other schools that have lowered their tuitions, NEJA hopes that lower tuition will enable the school to be more attractive to both existing and prospective families. They also anticipate that wealthier families will be more likely to make voluntary, tax-deductible contributions if their obligatory tuition is lowered.
It is also worth noting that the collection and analysis of additional data and ongoing donor support can lead to adaptations in existing tuition programs. Nearly a decade ago, Kadima Day School in Los Angeles announced a significantly reduced tuition level for first-time families to the school. A strong backlash from existing families who were ineligible for the lower tuition level ensued. Based on extensive survey data, the school discontinued the original program and worked with its initial donor to create a revised program that dramatically lowered tuition levels for all families. The school reports two years of consistent enrollment growth, a trend it attributes in large part to its revised, donor-funded program.
Alongside the improved programmatic elements in recent alternative tuition programs, there is a critical element to success that should not be overlooked: messaging. How a school or community messages its tuition program speaks volumes about its principles and values and should align with its stated mission. Alternative tuition models afford schools an opportunity to articulate these values and actualize their mission.
Consider the language used by the Greene Hill School in Brooklyn to describe its sliding-scale tuition program and how it connects directly to the school’s mission: A sliding scale tuition means that families pay the tuition that is appropriate for their family’s income and financial resources.
Practically, Greene Hill has established seven different tuition tiers, and a financial assessment will determine which tier is appropriate for each family.
An independent private school, Greene Hill is committed to diversity, and the sliding scale is one of the ways that we live our mission.
The Solomon Schechter of Greater Boston uses a description of its iCap tuition program to articulate two critical and complementary values: Tuition should be predictable in order to encourage parents to confidently enroll all their children; parents must be prepared to make a meaningful contribution toward tuition.
Schechter is committed to partnering with families who are ready to make a meaningful contribution toward tuition in accordance with their financial means… ICap Tuition Program is designed to enable families with children in kindergarten through grade 8 to anticipate their maximum future tuition obligation and confidently enroll their children at Schechter year after year, regardless of the number of children in each family.
The Hannah Senesh School in Brooklyn uses messaging in its strategic plan to inform parents of its values regarding school sustainability and parent affordability:
We will analyze our various and potential income streams, and research and review tuition models, in order to select and implement the options that will likely best achieve our goals of generating sufficient income while easing the burden on our parents.
The statements on these school websites are examples of clear and transparent messaging about tuition assistance to the potential customer. They express the school’s commitment as well the range of programs offered in an effort to find the best fit for each family.
In summary, many second-generation alternative tuition programs have benefited from greater intentionality in their program design and a focus on data-driven analysis. Partnerships with local federations and donors who make multiyear financial commitments have ensured that programs are set up for success. Recent results have been promising, and the field needs to carefully consider the scalability and applicability of these programs. Messaging these programs in a way that conveys a school’s core values and connects back to its mission is critical.
Prizmah is conducting more research aimed at better establishing causality between lower tuition prices and student recruitment and retention. We also plan to convene school and communal leaders, both lay and professional, to share our research and to help us plan a series of programs and initiatives related to tuition and affordability.
We look forward to sharing our research findings and to unveiling new initiatives soon. Both efforts will enable Prizmah and the field to carefully consider the scalability and applicability of these programs in the future.
Amy Adler is the director, and Dan Perla is the senior director, of Catalyzing Resources at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.
This article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of HaYidion, Prizmah’s magazine. Posted with permission.