Day schools trying to put new face on financial aid

Kindergarten teacher Nirit Yakov lights a menorah with a student at Tehiyah Day School in California. Courtesy of Tehiyah Day School
Kindergarten teacher Nirit Yakov lights a menorah with a student at Tehiyah Day School in California. Courtesy of Tehiyah Day School

Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Calif., had a problem.

Like many Jewish day schools throughout North America, Tehiyah has plenty of
students from lower-income families and a number from affluent ones. But it couldn’t seem to recruit and retain many middle-class students, even as it devoted increasing amounts to financial aid.

Middle-class parents “felt they wouldn’t be considered for financial aid or were just on the border of whether they could get aid,” said Bathea James, Tehiyah’s head of school.
“For many who felt they were reasonably financially successful, to fill out a financial aid form just wasn’t something they’d be willing to consider.”

So last year, James tried a new strategy:

Instead of posting a single tuition price and urging those who couldn’t afford it to apply for a scholarship, the school now posts a tuition range, from $7,950 to $22,450 for the 2014-15 academic year.

Known as indexed tuition, the plan permits parents to pay reduced tuition. To qualify for lower amounts, parents still must submit financial forms not entirely unlike what was required in the old aid application.

So the change is more about presentation than substance. But James said something about the system feels different.

“It’s a door opener for middle-income families,” she said. “They say if it’s based on what I can afford, let’s at least have a look at it.”

In response to mounting concerns about the increasing affordability of Jewish education, day schools across North America are experimenting with new approaches to tuition and financial aid.

Washington-area Jewish day schools are watching these innovations closely, but are being cautious about implementing new strategies.

“Tehiyah said, ‘You’ll pay from this range to that range,’ ” said Zvi Schoenberg, head of Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax. “What we talk about is that we’re here for the families. We want to create a place for all families.”

Gesher offers tuition reduction for a family’s third or more children and for the children of staff, he said.

In Rockville, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School “does not have options beyond tuition assistance,” according to Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school. In the current school year, the school awarded $4.6 million in tuition assistance, he said.

Likewise, the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital does not offer alternatives to traditional tuition assistance, said Naomi Reem, head of the Washington-based school. “We are in the midst of a strategic planning process and affordability is one of the topics we are considering,” she said.

Who pays for tuition breaks?
Around the country, schools are experimenting with other initiatives. Some, like Oakland Hebrew Day School in California, have introduced indexed tuition models, sometimes also referred to as “flex” or “sliding scale” tuition. Others have moved to cap tuition as a percentage of family income.

The Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston launched its iCap program in the 2012-13 term that guarantees a family will never be required to spend more than 15 percent of its household income on tuition. It means families with incomes as high as $400,000 — more than four times the median household income in Massachusetts — can still be eligible for financial aid if they have three or more children enrolled and have assets under a certain threshold.

As with Tehiyah’s indexed tuition, iCap isn’t actually costing the school any more money; most families would receive similar assistance had they applied for financial aid under the traditional system. But it does help with sticker shock, particularly for families who by national standards are far from poor but still struggle to cover the cost of a Jewish day school education.

“Most families in that high-end income bracket don’t even imagine they would qualify for a scholarship,” said Dan Perla, program officer for day school finance at the Avi Chai Foundation. The iCap program, he said, “makes it really easy and really transparent.”
Another Boston school, Maimonides, is introducing a version of the program next year. And the Avi Chai Foundation is helping two other day schools — Beit Rabban in Manhattan and the Robbins Hebrew Academy in Toronto — pilot similar efforts.

Rabbi Joshua Levisohn, head of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, said tuition caps don’t work at schools like his, which draws student from a relatively small pool of Orthodox families.

“The immutable bottom line is that schools must realize enough revenue in order to run their operations. Programs that cap tuition — and thus effectively give a break to some
families — must be balanced with some kind of additional revenue,” he said. “Where that can be realized with greater enrollment, it is theoretically possible to make up for the lost income via greater numbers. Indeed, that is the hope of most schools that have instituted some kind of tuition discounts or caps. With other schools, particularly Orthodox schools where the parent population is already overwhelmingly invested in day-school education, the room for notable enrollment growth is very limited. As a result, tuition cap programs in these schools just become a matter of shifting the cost burden from some families to others.”

The Berman Academy offers about $2.8m in scholarships, and the school also has a
sibling discount of up to $1,600 per child for the third and fourth children in the school, Levisohn said.

Lower tuition,
higher enrollment?

Some schools are developing elaborate and sometimes costly discounts designed not just to attract new families but to reduce attrition.

Hillel Day School in suburban Detroit is launching a “tuition subvention” program in 2014-15 that provides a tuition credit to each student that increases by $1,000 each year they stay in the school, regardless of family income.

Milwaukee Day School tried a similar approach, offering tuition discounts that
continue each year a student remains in the school. The strategy resulted in the enrollment of 55 new students last year — one of the largest increases ever seen by the school, according to Head of School Brian King.

But the incentive, which was a one-time offer available only to students enrolled at the school during the 2012-13 academic year, failed to arrest the school’s long-term decline in enrollment. The school currently has 190 students, down from last year’s 208.

One approach Perla and other experts generally discourage is across-the-board
tuition cuts, which they say can be financially unsustainable and do not lead to long-term enrollment gains. A recent study of 200 schools conducted by Measuring Success, a consulting firm specializing in data analysis for nonprofits, found that contrary to conventional wisdom, raising tuition does not lead to decreased enrollment.

In addition, many point to the experience of several Cleveland-area Jewish day schools that collectively decreased tuition in the early 2000s without seeing an increase in enrollment or fundraising revenues in the years that followed.

Two of the schools eventually raised tuition again and now are initiating more modest incentives, providing discounts for Jewish communal professionals and families that recruit other families.

Senior Writer David Holzel contributed to this article.

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