Eighteen months into the Great Recession and with record numbers of stressed middle-class parents requesting financial aid from day schools, one area school has taken the rare step of actually lowering tuition for next academic year.
Late last month, parents at Westchester Hebrew Day School got some welcome news in their mailboxes: a letter announcing that “for the first time in memory,” tuition would be reduced for the lower grades and held flat for all other grades.
“We wanted to let the community know that we heard them,” Russell Mannis, chairman of the board at the k-8 school told The Jewish Week, noting that many of the school’s parents work in financial services and other recession-hit industries.
Westchester Hebrew’s tuition ranges from $8,500 for early childhood to almost $20,000 for eighth grade. The 62-year-old Modern Orthodox yeshiva’s tuition decision to freeze rates from fourth through eighth grades while lowering kindergarten by $500, first grade by $1,000, second grade by almost $1,600 and third grade by $1,075, is part of a larger effort to increase enrollment, reduce costs in ways that do not affect educational quality and to broaden its donor base, Mannis said.
“We think it’s important for our school to demonstrate it’s doing everything in its power to deliver the cost of education as efficiently as possible,” he explained, adding that he is “hopeful that the broader Westchester community will see the effort we’ve taken and respond with financial support.”
This is the time of year when Jewish schools start to announce tuition for the following year and when financial aid applications begin to arrive. And Westchester is not the only school exploring tuition freezes and other measures to entice, retain or simply show compassion toward price-sensitive parents.
Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, in West Hempstead, is freezing its tuition for next year.
Last year, at the height of the recession, a number of schools, such as the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in the Five Towns and Yeshiva Har Torah in Queens, held tuition flat. And East Midwood Hebrew Day School in Brooklyn has kept its tuition stable for the past three years, although it plans an under 4 percent increase for next year. HALB and Har Torah have not yet set tuition for next year.
According to Harry Bloom, director of planning and performance improvement at Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, “a lot” of schools froze tuition last year, usually doing so by freezing or even cutting salaries.
This year as a result, he said, “day schools are feeling pressure from their staff. They can’t keep doing that each year or they will lose good staff.”
Adding to the pressure schools face, Bloom said, is the “incredible increase” last year in the number of scholarship applications from middle-class families “who’d never before applied for financial aid.”
“If that trend continues, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to at least do modest increases in tuition,” he said.
More common than across-the-board freezes are smaller-than-usual increases.
Elaine Cohen, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School Association, said that schools she’s talked with “are keeping tuition increases as low as possible,” with 3.5 percent the average rate of increase.
According to Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, “increases that in the past were 4 to 6 percent are maybe now 2 to 3 percent.”
Also, many schools are considering targeted decreases, like the one Westchester has implemented, in the early grades.
Because the recession has more heavily affected entry-grade enrollment than higher grades, a number of donors are helping reduce tuition in nursery school, kindergarten and first grade in order “to capture or recapture those kids,” Bloom said.
One example is the Robert M. Beren Academy, a Modern Orthodox school in Houston that froze tuition for 2009-10. This year, tuition is increasing by 3 percent, but “significant” discounts are available for first grade and for families new to town, according to Rabbi Ari Segal, the school’s head.
PEJE’s Elkin said that “the only cuts in tuition that we’ve heard about are not cuts in terms of lowering the actual amount being charged but in the area of trying to provide additional help for the group in the middle that is being squeezed.”
He pointed to new projects in MetroWest, N.J., Phoenix and St. Louis, aimed at helping middle-class families.
However, while schools might like to freeze or even lower tuition, Elkin said that most are “recognizing that costs are going up — slower, but they’re still going up — and that if they don’t pass some of that cost on to the established tuition level, then they’re transferring the onus onto fundraising.”
While some school expenses, such as real estate, have gone down due to the recession, scholarships and health insurance premiums (for teachers and staff, whose salaries and benefit packages are by far the largest budget line item at most schools) continue to rise.
Most observers note that Jewish day schools have become increasingly fiscally disciplined in the past year as they face pressure to trim all costs possible and to explain their budget to more cost-conscious parents.
Many schools are also increasingly looking at “ancillary” income, such as renting out the facilities when not in use, Elkin said.
Setting tuition is a difficult process, said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, a network of nondenominational Jewish day schools, which hosted a joint conference last month with the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day school associations.
“If you raise tuition, will families perceive it as you being insensitive?” Kramer asked. “If an increase pushes families from full pay to financial aid, will they walk?”
While most schools accompany tuition increases with offers of increased financial aid, many middle-class parents “can’t bring themselves to receive tzedakah,” Kramer noted.
A few schools are bucking the trend toward flat or modestly increased tuition.
In suburban Cleveland, the nondenominational Agnon School is, for the second year in a row, raising tuition by a whopping 8 to 12 percent.
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, head of The Agnon School, said that for too long his and other Jewish schools kept tuition too low and “hampered our ability to provide a quality program.”
Because the tuition hike is being accompanied by a larger financial aid budget, “in some ways this is a modified sliding scale,” he explained.
With a dual curriculum and two sets of teachers, Agnon, which has 360 students in nursery through eighth grade, is “educationally comparable to schools asking two or three times what we ask in tuition,” Isaak-Shapiro said.
“The question shouldn’t be why is tuition so much higher than it had been. The question is how can we provide such amazing quality education at a much lower price than comparable independent schools?”
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the many chasidic and fervently Orthodox schools that, according to Marvin Schick, an educational consultant with the Avi Chai Foundation, represent more than half of all Jewish day schools in the country.
These schools “charge under $10,000 and have liberal scholarship policies,” Schick said. While the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox day schools today talk about freezes and a “tuition crisis,” the more right-wing schools already charge so little that “there’s really not much question for them about reducing tuition.” n