Commentary

Demystifying Day School Tuition

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 James Wolfe

Much time has been devoted to the so-called “tuition crisis.” School boards and administrators work tirelessly; local federations and national organizations like the Orthodox Union lobby, convene committees, and do fundraising; families hash out various scenarios over Shabbos tables all to solve the problem. Despite these efforts, tuition almost always rises and the burden grows heavier.

The issue has been on my mind, as well. Eighteen months ago, I created a Google Spreadsheet with the goal of better understanding how my children’s school fit into the bigger picture. The spreadsheet, originally intended for friends and family, asked for basic information: number of school days and tuition cost.

Unexpectedly, this simple exercise went “viral.” Shared with thousands, the spreadsheet collected tuition costs of hundreds of Jewish day schools around the world. It received oversized attention and some media coverage. That the spreadsheet was shared so broadly indicates how deeply it resonated with the larger Jewish community. The information—and the desire to democratize it—clearly struck a nerve.

Still, this unintended project mostly failed to serve as a catalyst for any form of change. While the cost of schooling remains an important topic of conversation, there is little evidence of a change in behavior by the parents or the schools. There are certainly exceptions. My children’s school, Maimonides, in Brookline, MA, for example, has held several town hall meetings in the past few months and has frozen tuition for the coming year.

Still, why has there been so little change? Isn’t there significant room for improvement?

The answer, I think, is that comparing tuition “sticker prices” means very little in a vacuum. The spreadsheet failed to consider cost of living, financial aid, and the depth of offerings at each school. Some schools feature more educational opportunities and amenities than others, to say nothing about non-educational drivers of cost such as dormitories and meal plans.

To truly solve a problem, we must first understand it. As a community, we must take a hard look at our day schools and place their costs into a fuller context. Revealing and democratizing information is crucial but accumulating and sharing good data is even more critical.

That’s why I’ve now created the Jewish School Database (JSDB). The JSDB is a website that aims to empower the community to gather and learn important and sometimes elusive data.

With JSDB, we will be able to identify and analyze outcomes, understand how schools compare to each other, and enable the school administrators to develop best practices. The day schools largely ignored the 2016 spreadsheet because they could claim—perhaps rightfully—that their tuitions vary because their offerings are different. This new website and the data it collects will allow parents and other stakeholders to evaluate whether these claims are accurate. Most importantly, it will hold schools accountable for the choices they make when balancing quality and cost.

In addition, it will serve as a valuable resource for “comparison shopping.” As consumers, we have come to expect as much. When someone shops, say, for a three dollar box of paperclips on Amazon, she or he will find all of the item details along with hundreds of reviews and ratings to help make the right choice. With the JSDB website, this kind of information will be readily available when it comes time to choose where to spend your life savings on your child’s tuition (MSRP $200,000+ per child).

The website is designed to collect data in three categories:

  1. Outcomes: Schools may differ in their offerings, but at the end of the day many parents care most about the finished product. SAT scores, college acceptance rates, gap year attendance rates, long term religiosity trends—these are the data points that so many seek and so few attain.
  2. Experience: As students matriculate, what is their day like? Are their classes tracked? How many students are in a section? Is there a guidance counselor? How big are the grounds? While there is no single metric for student experience there are many measures which the site collects to understand how schools compare.
  3. Expenses: Two schools can be identical in every way. However, if one has paid off their mortgage and the other has not, they will have very different cost structures. Many costs are directly correlated to “experience”—e.g., more teachers equals more individualized attention paid to each child—but in order to understand tuition, a clear understanding of the operational costs and decisions therein is vital.

The JSDB is pre-populated with some publicly available information, but this project is necessarily grassroots. This website relies on user contributions and leadership.  Please take a few minutes to locate (or add) your children’s school. Enter whatever information you know and correct any mistakes that you find. Please fill out the survey on the top of the sidebar (click on a school name to reveal it). The long-term religiosity outcomes are, perhaps, the single most important data point we are collecting.

The site itself is simple and designed for easy navigation. As soon as you arrive you are presented with an editable table of schools. The filters at the top allow for easy location of a given school or set of community schools and if you click on the arrow to the left of a school, you will see all the data elements. Clicking on a school title will open a sidebar with information about the school and a link to a survey at the top.

For the more spatially inclined there is a map view as well which aggregates schools by region. Clicking on the numbered circles will zoom in to that region for greater detail.

The Google spreadsheet, while popular, was defaced many times over the last year. Therefore, to edit data on the JSDB site, you must log in. Even though contributors are never identified anywhere on the site, this allows us to identify the author behind each data point allowing us to undo any damage done by malicious actors seeking to destroy information.

While no individual data point will solve the tuition crisis, working together we can build something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Reaching a critical mass will allow us to bring about real change. That goal can only be met with your participation.

 

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James Wolfe
James Wolfe is the CEO of Integrate S/T, a software development firm. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife and three children.