The Tuition Crisis at 20: What Now?

affordabilityBy Jeff Kiderman

  • “Day schools … are having trouble paying their bills. The problem is, the predominant sources of their income – parents – are having even more trouble keeping up with rising tuition.”

  • “The Jewish community has virtually disowned those of us of moderate income.”

  • “It has been said, only partly in jest, that the high cost of day school education promotes birth control.”

If you’d assume, as I would, that these are relatively recent quotes, you’d be sorely mistaken. These are quotes from 1997. Princess Diana was still alive, Harry Potter was an unknown name, and Michael Jordan was still winning championships. And yet, we were already talking about a crisis in Jewish day school affordability.

We as a community are entering our 20th year consumed by the high cost of Jewish day school education. Hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic money have been invested by foundations, federations, agencies, and generous individuals to address this problem. Departments have been founded, campaigns have been launched, papers have been written, blogs have been created, and conferences have been convened. We’ve even created initiatives just to research, organize, and document all of the initiatives going on in this space.

And yet, day school affordability is more elusive than ever. A full generation has passed; the children of 1997 whose Jewish education was unaffordable are now the parents whose children’s Jewish education is even less affordable.

It’s time to reflect and refocus.

In 1997, United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America) and Jewish Education Services of North America (now defunct) established a “Task Force on Jewish Day School Viability and Vitality.” The task force, consisting of a cross-denominational group of day school and community leaders across the country, made over 30 recommendations concerning the “funding, affordability, and long-term viability of day school education.”

When faced with a business model that’s neither affordable nor financially sustainable, there are two options: increase revenues, or reduce costs. Of the task force’s 30 recommendations, however, almost all focused heavily on generating more income for day schools. None of them charged the Jewish day school field with finding ways to spend less money, and many of them even promoted increased spending.

These recommendations led the way for 20 years of noble efforts to make Jewish day schools more affordable and financially sustainable through increased revenues. We’ve improved marketing and recruitment. We’ve increased financial aid and cleaned up scholarship processes. We’ve raised salaries and enhanced professional development through central agencies. We’ve incorporated best practices in board governance and fundraising. We’ve raised money for annual campaigns, financial aid, and endowments. We’ve drawn greater allocations from federations. We’ve developed creative ways to use our facilities to generate income. We’ve shared information and established benchmarks. We’ve lobbied the government for more funding. We’ve generated over 30 different types of tuition discounts and incentives.

There’s no doubt that Jewish education has benefited tremendously from many of the initiatives that we’ve pursued over the past 20 years. On the whole, Jewish day schools are undoubtedly higher quality, more professional, and more well-funded than they were 20 years ago. And that’s certainly worth celebrating.

But what has the impact on affordability been? How many times since 1997 has a Jewish day school meaningfully lowered tuition because of a revenue-generating initiative?

Although we as a community have gone “all-in” on revenue generation, the cost side of the equation has been largely ignored. Are individual schools as efficient as they can be? Does our day school system benefit from having 800+ schools operating completely independently of each other? Are there alternative staffing models that can be explored? Is there a way to do more with less?

Revenue generation and cost reduction aren’t mutually exclusive. We can and should continue to make every effort to push day schools as a primary destination for philanthropic and government funds. But after 20 years, perhaps the time has come to reflect on what has and has not been accomplished and shift our focus to the cost side of the equation.

Cost reduction and efficiency are complicated, which may partially explain why the affordability community has instead focused on revenue. Employees account for 80% of the costs in most schools, and teachers don’t have high salaries to begin with. Ultimately, real efficiency demands innovation, which requires great ideas and even better execution. It needs people to develop these ideas and the infrastructure to implement them at scale.

In 2011, the philosophy of improving the quality and affordability of Jewish day schools through more effective and efficient education led to the launch of Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE) and ultimately to the creation of the innovative 2 Sigma Education model. Partnerships have been established with Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) and with Yeshivat He’Atid and Westchester Torah Academy – two new Modern Orthodox day schools with 400 students preK-5th grade whose tuition is half the price of local alternatives – to significantly increase reading and math scores while presenting meaningful cost savings opportunities. With relatively minimal resources, this small but growing movement has been able to test different ideas, learn from its failures, and build on its successes.

Every school is unique and every community is unique. There’s no silver bullet in cost reduction any more than there is a silver bullet in revenue generation, and AJE’s current approach is far from the only possible approach.

Let’s focus on developing and piloting a wide variety of ideas. Some may succeed, others may not. If there are 30 ways to increase revenues, then maybe there are 30 ways to decrease costs. It’s time to focus on finding them.

Will this generation be the one to end this crisis once and for all? There’s only one way to find out.

Jeff Kiderman is Executive Director of Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE). The author welcomes all feedback and can be emailed at jeff@ajeproject.org.