US Jewish Schools Find Success In ‘Sliding Scale’ Variable Tuition

Jewish schools in North America have come up with strategies for parents to pay reduced tuition fees in a bid to maintain a socioeconomically-diverse school environment.

After failing to recruit and retain many middle-class students, even as it devoted increasing amounts to financial aid, Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, California decided to try a new strategy. The strategy was that 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. The plan, known as indexed tuition, permits parents to pay reduced tuition. However, to qualify for lower amounts, parents still must submit financial forms not entirely unlike what was required in the old aid application.

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

Day schools across North America are experimenting with new approaches to tuition and financial aid in response to mounting concerns about the increasing affordability of Jewish education. Hence, indexed tuition models, sometimes also referred to as “flex” or “sliding scale” tuition, have been introduced in some schools like Oakland Hebrew Day School in California.

Others have moved to cap tuition as a percentage of family income. In the 2012-13 term, the Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston launched its iCap program 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.

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

“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.”

According to Julie Weiner of The Times of Israel, elaborate and sometimes costly discounts designed not just to attract new families but to reduce attrition are being developed by some schools.

However, 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. Contrary to conventional wisdom, raising tuition does not lead to decreased enrollment as found by a recent study of 200 schools conducted by Measuring Success, a consulting firm specializing in data analysis for non-profits. Additionally, 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 is pointed by many.