How Can Jewish Day Schools Effectively Make Their Schools Affordable for The New Middle Class?

[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of 21st Century Sustainability.]

by Arnold Zar-Kessler

In his PEJE white paper on school and community-wide efforts in North America to make Jewish day schools more affordable to middle-income families, Charles Cohen outlines some of the issues involved in middle-income affordability:

“The recent recession exacerbated the problem by slowing salary growth, for those who were lucky enough to remain employed, even as school expenses continued to rise. That income-tuition disparity has meant that more families need financial aid, and schools have struggled to handle the additional requests. Many of these families are in the middle-income range and are not used to struggling to make ends meet. However, because of the growing tuition burden, they may seek support for the first time. This can be a very difficult mental hurdle; if you are a donor to every other organization with which you are affiliated, it is extremely difficult to turn around and ask for help from your children’s school … As a result, middle-income affordability has become a serious concern for Jewish day schools and communities.

“The “barbell effect” – students from higher-income and lower-income families disproportionately represented among the student body, with a paucity of students in the middle income brackets – is another way to look at this challenge.”

Many Jewish day school leaders have been asking the question of how to make their schools more affordable for the middle class. While there is – as of yet – no silver bullet, experiments with financial and structural innovations have led to some very promising ideas. At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, we have focused on using financial aid incentives to both attract and retain middle-income families, giving specific attention to those with three children or more.

“We felt that we could do better for these families. Many of them wanted to provide a Jewish day school education for their children while at the same time making thoughtful financial decisions and planning for their family’s future financial stability. If we could give them a means to make the school seem more affordable over the long haul, we believed that these larger, middle-income families would feel encouraged to confidently consider a Schechter education,” says Andria Weil, President of Schechter’s Board of Trustees, featured in the following video.

Thus, “iCap” was born. Working closely with the school’s professional staff and her Board partners (along with gathering input form a wide range of experts in the Jewish day school and finance fields), Weil developed a plan that would “cap” a family’s contribution at any point in their children’s educational careers at Schechter, regardless of the number of children enrolled at any given time, to no more than 15 percent of the family’s adjusted gross income (AGI). By so doing, every family would have a readily available tool to determine what the cost of a Schechter education would be today – and tomorrow. While the “retail price” of tuition may rise over the years of a family’s time at the school, the maximum fraction of their household budget would not. This means that families could effectively plan for their tuition bills years in advance.

The “cap” number was determined through a historical study of financial aid awards over a number of years at the school and projected budgetary needs developed through strategic financial planning. While iCap’s application process is somewhat more streamlined that the traditional financial aid process, the program was not intended to take the place of the traditional financial aid awarded to families demonstrating greater financial need.

The program was rolled out for its first iteration this application year (for the 2013-2014 school year), and early results are promising: just under ten percent of all families in the school qualified for the program (the majority of families still receiving traditional financial aid comprised roughly another third of all families). Our preliminary data show that the program has cost around $200,000 in the first year, and there is evidence to indicate that roughly five children (from three families, with younger children hopefully on the way) have enrolled in the school largely because of the availability of this program. What we don’t know is how many families might have left this year, or in future years, were this program not in place.

Is iCap a success? We’ve been asked this very question from interested parties from around the country ever since we announced the program last winter. While we are confident that families have found the construct of iCap, especially its elements of predictability, very helpful, and while we are glad to have retained and grown the enrollment number we have, we need to run many more admission and enrollment cycles before we can say anything definitive about these results. For now, we are pleased to have demonstrated once again to our families that we want to make a Schechter education work for them: that if this is something they want for their families, we are eager to ensure that finances do not stand in the way of providing this education to their children. We’ll look forward to sharing more in the years to come as we have more data to share!

Arnold Zar-Kessler is the Head of School of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, a school of 526 students, age fifteen months through fourteen years, and is in his twenty-first year of leadership at the school.