Variable Private School Tuition Is Arriving (at a few schools)

variable tuition

Variable Tuition is arriving in the private school marketplace.

Tuitions require a significant family investment and schools recognize that it benefits them to make their seats accessible to families who may not be able to afford full tuition.

Consultant Rick Newberry recently published, “Is Variable Tuition Right for Your School?” on his blog at Enrollment Catalyst.

A little backstory — in 2009, I learned of a small school that was going to try to implement a sliding tuition scale based on each family’s ability to pay.

When I read their announcement, I was full of questions. Variable, or sliding tuition, sounds like a great idea, but it requires significant participation from families and the school.

I sought an interview with questions like:

Will participation in the financial process be mandatory for all families?
What if a family doesn’t want to disclose their financials?
How will the school work with the financial aid processor?

Variable tuition proved too big a bite for the small school, and they decided not to implement the concept; it just had too many moving parts.

Back to today, Newberry does an excellent job showing that cost continues as a primary concern of parents and, I think, most importantly, that it’s time to move beyond the concept of financial aid.

Newberry explains:

“…Cost is the most identified barrier to entry and obstacle to continuing enrollment in private, independent and faith-based schools. While this issue is connected to value, the issue is that many families don’t even consider our schools because of the cost. It is critical to find a way to overcome this barrier.

In addition, there is a negative stigma about applying for and receiving financial aid. I have found that this is different from what I experienced years ago in higher education. Everyone wants to receive financial aid for college. As the director of enrollment management, our strategy was focused on leveraging financial aid to meet our enrollment goals.

The irony is that in most schools financial aid are not real dollars that are given to families. Unless a school has an endowment to support the financial aid program, tuition assistance is simply a reduction in tuition.

Tuition discounting is the typical approach in most schools.

Because of this, I have found that Variable Tuition is a more accurate description of this process. Variable Tuition is a more effective way to market financial aid. Rather than communicating that money will be given to reduce the tuition in the form of tuition assistance, Variable Tuition communicates that tuition varies and is discounted based on the financial ability of the family.

The key is that tuition “varies” based on the financial situation of the family. A parent will pay full price unless they apply for a Variable Tuition rate, which is the same process as financial aid…”

So what does this mean for families?
Admittedly, only a few schools have implemented Variable Tuition. If you’re applying to or attending a school that has, I think you’re lucky.

To see Variable Tuition in action, take a look at Eastern Christian School’s video “Variable Tuition at Eastern Christian.”

I think matching a family’s tuition rate/bill to their ability to pay is the future.

I know that many families might be hesitant about the financial statement filing process. Keep in mind that schools, and their financial aid processors, have been in this business for years.

I like the move toward full participation by a school’s families.

If a family wants to be considered in the Variable Tuition process, they must participate in the financial aid process. If a family elects not to file for the financial aid process, they will not be considered for Variable Tuition and will pay full price.

Hopefully, all families at Variable Tuition schools will participate so that their tuition rates are set as closely as possible to their abilities to pay.

With, near full participation, private school becomes more accessible to many. The process becomes transparent, and a healthy process emerges.

For families still applying to schools using a traditional financial aid model, I return to the adage: “the only way to know if you qualify for financial aid is to apply.”

Variable Tuition lets a school demonstrate that it values providing accessibility as a core belief and that it considers the circumstances of each family.

Outside of classroom teachers and learning experiences, this commitment to working with parents around affordability could become a given school’s strongest selling point.

  • MrHWrestlingCoach

    Mr. Newberry’s financial model does not work. Mr. Newberry believes that the law of diminishing returns works for schools. The truth is schools must have a strong practice to raise funds and/or tuition to cover the true cost of each student, i.e. extra faculty and staff expenses (more students equal an extra faculty workload and a pay raise for those faculty.) Most don’t have the resources to cover the true costs, and many will close due to Mr. Newberry’s model. Case in point, research Mr. Newberry’s clients’ tax returns and see the average financial loss is $750,000 18 months after he has left the campus.

    • Rudi

      We had Rick Newberry at our school. He “left us” 2 years ago. We have grown in every conceivable capacity. We’re going to be up 15% in 2 years.

      • MrHWrestlingCoach

        EC’s 990 shows a loss of $150,000 in year one. When variable tuition hits, since your school never handed out out tuition scholarships, you will loose $900,000 this year. You might be up student wise, but not monetary wise. Money = everything. Rudi can’t do taxes or math!

  • You are said right. There is a negative stigma about applying for and receiving financial aid. I have found that this is different from what I experienced years ago in higher education. ..

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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