Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi, Maimonides Kehillah; Dean, Maimonides School

Individualized Tuition: A New Paradigm in Day School Tuition

Maimonides School's iconic arches. (Courtesy)
Maimonides School's iconic arches. (Courtesy)

And now my children, listen to my teaching, and praised are those who guard My Ways” (Proverbs 8:32)

It is not an exaggeration to say that more blog posts have been written about day school tuition in the past decade than there are Jewish Day Schools in the country.  The affordability problem is complex and multi-faceted, incorporating Jewish teachings and values about the importance of universal Jewish education, and the concept of dignity and respectful charity, together with practical reflections on fundraising and sustainability, the role of marketing, choice & competition in the landscape of Jewish education, and an analysis of cost structures in day school education.  It often feels that the sheer complexity of the problem makes it impossible to arrive at a solution, and many community leaders are reluctant to attempt a partial solution when a comprehensive solution appears impossible.

The practical realities are such that schools need to balance their budgets to survive.  But on the other hand, Jewish society has long held a commitment to charity, justice, and collective community support — whereby communities work together to address common needs of the entire community, making sure no individual Jew is left out.  Indeed, the first public schools were founded by Jewish societies during the Second Temple period (Bava Batra 21a), and debates about ways to spread communal costs in ways that are just and fair were conducted in Jewish societies centuries before this country was even founded (See Choshen Mishpat 163 and Yoreh Deah 250:5) Yet, the task of determining what is just and equitable has been a complicated one, draining many hours of human labor and causing much aggravation:  Should each family pay the same amount or should tuition be connected to one’s ability to pay?  Should there be minimum tuition and what should be the approach to families who cannot even afford the minimum?  How does the system make sure to provide relief to families in need, without unfairly punishing families who can afford tuition only through living more modest lifestyles and thereby minimize their family’s expenses?

Thus far, most communities have answered these questions through complex financial aid systems with committees who evaluate each family on a case by case basis.  Yet, such systems raise a second layer of difficult questions for schools and communities: Have we preserved a family’s dignity and privacy (see Maimonides, final chapter to the laws of charity)?  Do families have predictability to plan for future years if their tuition is set anew each year based on a multitude of changing factors?  If each case is addressed on a case by case basis, is there confidence that the system is fair and equitable and that each family is treated the same way?  It would not be an understatement to say that many critics call the current system a cumbersome, intrusive process, rife with value judgments which generates negative feelings among parents and other community stakeholders.

About a year ago, Westchester Day School took an important step towards a partial solution for middle income families, focusing on two aspects of this multi-faceted community concern — tuition relief, and increased respect/predictability — through their new income-based tuition system for families. Maimonides School has spent the last year working on a system that moves us even further along. Since its founding by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – the Rav zt”l – in 1937, our school has always been at the vanguard of American Jewish education, so it is no surprise that in the realm of affordability, our school seeks to lead as well. Rolling out as a pilot this coming year, our new Maimonides Affordability Initiative (MAI Way) program is the first in the country to replace traditional financial aid for all families, low and middle income, with a new system that is streamlined, less-intrusive, and equitable.  It is also the first to proactively coordinate with another school in its community on tuition and affordability.

Our point of departure is that families should spend a fair percentage of their income on day school tuition, with the schools largely remaining silent about how families spend the balance of their income.  It is not a school’s place to determine whether families should use their disposable income for vacations, buying fancy cars, sending kids to camp, saving for college or incurring debt.  Fairness dictates similar outcomes for families of similar incomes, not a school micromanaging and evaluating each financial decision a family has ever made before setting that family’s tuition. The broader private school community in the United States has also come to this conclusion in their approach to tuition and financial aid in recent years as well.

Thus, our school, a flagship in the United States for its commitment to the synthesis of Torah and general knowledge, and with it, its commitment to use secular knowledge to serve religious purposes, sought to use statistical methods and tools to build a new system.  A combination of professional and lay leaders with expertise in statistical analysis & financial modeling examined our historical tuition & financial aid data, and then utilized regression analyses to identify the most important data inputs in our award outcomes.  This information was then used to derive and then validate a simplified formula for determining family tuition obligation. As a result, our new MAI Way program simultaneously produces a replacement for the financial aid committee process for lower income families and a fair and equitable individualized tuition for middle income families.  Eligibility criteria include AGI up to $400,000 and net assets (including primary residence, excluding retirement savings) up to $1 million, so lower and middle income families are equally included.

The MAI Way formula combines a per-student tuition payment and a tuition-payment as a percentage of AGI, thereby using only two data inputs, family adjusted gross income (AGI) and number of children enrolled in Maimonides, to yield an individualized tuition obligation for families.  The percentage of AGI comes from an exponential equation developed internally based on historical tuition and financial aid data.  Using an exponential equation ensures a more progressive system that asks those of increasing means to pay an increasing share of income, eliminating the regressive nature of flat tuition rates while also avoiding the skewed behavior encouraged by steps and bands. The formula is empiric, tailored to Maimonides’ practices and circumstances, but it serves as a model that can be adapted and refined as circumstances, or other schools, require.

With the encouragement of our local federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), our program also takes into account tuition at another nearby Modern Orthodox elementary school that feeds our middle school. The coordination between Maimonides and this partner school serves as a model for how to address affordability community-wide, respecting the reality that families might enroll their children in multiple schools.  Our new program also includes a sibling discount for students enrolled in either our school or our partner school to improve affordability for families ineligible for MAI Way.

We intend our program as a next step in an ongoing process. No doubt much work remains. After our pilot year, we will review, analyze, and refine our program with the goal of enhancing affordability for our families while ensuring the sustainability of our school.  But simplifying the process of financial aid and tuition rates is an important pre-condition to moving on to the next problem of the balance between affordability on the one hand, and school sustainability and a balanced budget on the other.  More work must also be done to leverage community resources, both in philanthropy as well as in cost-sharing, towards a goal of making day school more affordable.  But having a simplified tuition formula shows that schools have taken the first step and done their part to formulate a new model for setting tuition.  We hope our fellow day schools, collective federations, and the philanthropic community will join with us to ensure that day school education remains a linchpin of our communities for years to come.

The Proverb with which we began asks all of us to follow God’s ways and listen to His teachings.  And there is no better way to do so than to promote the inculcation and study of Torah learning & Jewish values through Jewish Day Schools, accessible and available to all, both in the short term and in years to come.

The above was co-authored Ernest Mandel, who is a lay leader at the Maimonides School.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe is the Rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, and the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass.
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