Do the Math

If your school year is about to begin, perhaps you’re still dealing with parents who say they cannot afford tuition, as they’re still suffering through difficult economic times.  Perhaps your school year has already begun, and parents are already saying that they’re having difficulty making the payments that they’ve agreed to make.  Perhaps you’re waiting for the school year to start, and are dreading the first day – simply because parents that think they can’t afford what you’ve asked them to pay, even after financial aid has been awarded, and they won’t even call to discuss their concerns.  The children just don’t show up on the first day of school.

If any of these scenarios is happening at your school, then consider a strategy for next school year.  Yes, this is the time to be planning for 16-17.  If you have too many fires to put out yet for 15-16, then this is the year to start your planning calendar for next year now.

If you send an “initial invoice” to parents, which shows their tuition and the amount of financial aid they’re going to be receiving, don’t send them to the parents’ home, or even email them.  If you do, parents will put them on the side, things will pile on top of them, and they won’t take action on them.  Invoices need to be presented in person, and current parents should receive them prior to the end of the school year.  This provides the opportunity to explain that the figure is derived from the information gathered by your school’s financial need assessment provider, AND provides a time to talk about the real cost of education.  For most schools, the announced tuition still only represents a portion of the total cost of education.  In most situations, parents are not being asked to pay that amount. Additionally, they may have received more aid since school leaders are familiar with familial situations. The amount parents paid last year, as well as what they “ARE WILLING” (not “WANT”) to pay also figures into the determination.

Let’s consider a tuition of $4,000 per child, and you’re asking the family to pay $2,500 based on the data received and the amount of financial aid you have available.

If this was a Development conversation – that is, if a development director or advancement professional was asking a donor for a gift – $2,500 is an eyeball-to-eyeball ask.  So why do we handle our school’s parents differently, simply sending them a piece of paper in the mail?  If they have two or more children in the school, and one is in a tuition-charging high school, they may be expected to pay five figures, even with the benefit of financial aid.  Receiving a bill of this amount is almost insulting, especially if you’re then going to ask them to volunteer for a committee, help out with buying school supplies, and fundraise to generate even more revenue for the school.

Let’s take the invoice example into the business world for a moment.  If I was buying a car that cost $24,000, and could finance it a 0% financing for five years, that would be $400 a month for 60 months.  I don’t know of any automobile retailer that would send the paperwork to the customer’s home to be signed, and then, when the customer has completed it, only then invited to visit the showroom to get the car.  Those are in-person conversations, and, consequently, in-person commitments.

Second, if you’re asking parents to pay $2,500, perhaps they stated they’re willing to pay $1,500 because that’s what they can afford (at least, what they said they can afford).  Perhaps some school leaders would say, “Just split the difference and make it $2,000,” but the bigger question is, “Can your school afford the risk of losing even one child?”  Notice how even though schools say they’re a ministry, we’re talking about negotiation here.  In ministry, there is no such thing as negotiation.  Therefore, if you contend your school is a ministry, yet this conversation sounds incredibly familiar, it’s not only a ministry, but also a business (by the way, it’s also a school).

Let’s take a different approach rather than just splitting the difference.  Instead of focusing on $1,500 they’re willing to pay, let’s look at that difference of $1,000. Over the course of 10 months, that’s $100 per month. With almost 20 days of instruction in a month over those 10 months, that comes out to less than $5 per day. With an average 6 hour school day, that’s less than 1 dollar per hour. So, if they’re willing to pay $1,500, might it be possible to sacrifice an extra 85 cents per hour?

Another approach – $2,500 for the year…180 school days per year.  That’s just under $14 a day.  With at least six hours in a school day, that’s $2.33 an hour.  I’ll bet parents pay more than that for a sitter for the night.

Here’s another suggestion:  Right next to your announced tuition, show what the average parent pays per child, AND, if you’re not using a cost-based tuition/need-based aid model, show what the full-cost of education per student is.

Of course, we have parents that don’t believe in applying for financial aid.  They look at college as the time to do that.  Almost 30 years ago, my yearly cost of education was $100 per credit for college – yes, $3,000 per year.  Did I apply for financial aid?  Absolutely!  So why aren’t parents applying for financial aid today when elementary school tuition amounts are in the $4,000 per child range?  Perhaps the better question is why aren’t we budgeting financial aid into our regular school budgets?  “But that means that parents who are paying full cost are also paying a portion of someone else’s financial aid!”  YES! Where do you think colleges get some of their financial aid revenues from?  If you said benefactors, and that would also be correct.

So then, where are your school’s benefactors?  If your school doesn’t have a Development Director to find them and engage them in the mission of your school, then this is also the time to put such a position in the budget for 16-17.  See?  Planning for 16-17 does start now!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2010-2015 (Original Publication Date: 20050815)