Insane Day School Tuition?

tuition highThis week the Jewish Forward* published an opinion piece, written by a parent, about the high cost of Jewish day school tuition. The op-ed responds to a spreadsheet created by a father in Massachusetts that has gone viral – it lists the true cost of Jewish day school education across America. A parent at Hillel even added us to it.

These tuition snapshots have become an annual rite of passage; every year, when school begins, a flurry of articles and blogs bemoan the high cost of day schools, and how tuition is pushing people away and making Jewish living unaffordable.

It is true that day school tuition, like most independent school tuition, goes up every year, and outpaces increases in salaries.  The fact that the cost of living has gone up for decades, while the median salary in the United States has remained basically stagnant, until just recently, certainly exacerbates the problem.  We acknowledge that it is increasingly challenging for families to afford day school tuition, and not only in cities like New York, where elementary school tuition can be $40,000.

But there is an explanation for the high costs. Eighty percent of most day school’s expenses, including Hillel’s, goes to compensation packages, including health care benefits. We care about our employees and are proud to be able to offer them health care plans in which they can participate.

Furthermore, we and our parents demand excellent teachers, and our teachers deserve to make a livable wage.  At Hillel, the teachers were receiving annual raises, on average, of 2 percent or less, since the great recession of 2008.  As a result, a gap in our teachers’ salaries, compared to their peers in the industry, began to emerge. These past three years we have worked at narrowing the gap.

In many of the day schools across the country, tuition increases have gone back to 5 percent or more since the recession. The board of trustees at Hillel has held tuition increases to 3 percent or less for the past eight years.  Do the math – our expenses outpace increases in tuition.

For Hillel, as for most schools, this is not a sustainable model for the long term.  So what is the solution?

The only way to keep tuition costs manageable, while giving school professionals a livable wage, is for Jewish communities to robustly support our day schools. Parents can no longer bear the brunt of the burden alone. They are already making great sacrifices. We know, through decades of data, that day schools are essential to preserving a vibrant Jewish community in North America.

Detroit, while not perfect, can be a model of a community working to manage day school tuition. Our tuition for 2016-17 is listed at $19,070.00. Yet only 16 percent of our families pay that amount, and they choose to, because they are forgoing our tuition grant program, which makes tuition decline the longer your child is enrolled at Hillel, and which is available to all of our families not on financial assistance. Now in its third year, families who are opting into the grant are paying $16,070 in tuition. Currently, 65 percent of eligible families avail themselves of the grant.

Aside from the grant, we offer generous tuition assistance to 53 percent of our families, who are paying anywhere from $1,800 to $15,000 per child, depending on circumstances. (We are committed to turning away no family.) This is made possible by an annual donation from a local anonymous donor, in the amount of $500,000, the annual combined allocations from Federation, which exceeds one million dollars, over one million dollars from the Davidson Foundation, and our annual campaign, which needs to raise $800,000, annually. Put simply, it takes an additional 3.3 million dollars annually to balance Hillel’s budget.

Only a community-wide effort can help day schools manage tuition costs and pay decent salaries.  Unless Jewish Federations around the nation, partnering with private philanthropists and local foundations, as is the case at Hillel in Detroit, step in with significantly more dollars to support Jewish day schools in their communities, the current day school model may eventually collapse.

Our greatest challenge, and opportunity, is to ensure that every partner who supports Hillel’s mission continues to understand the vital need to maintain their support.  We must also increase the number of partners supporting our school – the future does depend on it!

Read the Forward article here.

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