Time to get serious about the tuition crisis

Time to get serious about the tuition crisis

During the past few weeks, this newspaper has printed two very well-written and pointed Op-Ed pieces by Amy Citron and Arthur Aaron advocating that the Orthodox community should consider some form of public school education as a solution to the “tuition crisis.” Concurrently, hundreds turned out for a public meeting in Englewood, the focus of which was the option of creating a “Hebrew-immersion track” within the public school system. Whether or not our community should be exploring these avenues is certainly a topic for debate, but the underlying reality that is prompting these discussions cannot be denied or ignored. The truth is that the average family sending its children to yeshiva day schools is drowning under the ever-increasing cost of tuition.

There are some who have the misconception that the “tuition crisis” is a result of the current economic crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there is no doubt that the recent economic turmoil has brought the issue more to the forefront and there will be some more immediate ramifications, this is a problem that has been decades in the making.

The reality is that families in our community have to earn extremely high incomes just to live a relatively modest lifestyle in conjunction with paying their yeshiva tuition bills in full. A family with three to four children will have a tuition bill between $40,000 and $70,000, depending on their choice of school and the age of the children (not to mention the cost of summer camp, which is often a necessity when both parents work). This is all “after-tax” money and results in the absurdity of a family with an income of $200,000 (or more) being hard pressed to meet their tuition obligations without seeking scholarship assistance or relying on help from grandparents.

According to the U.S. Census 2006 Economic Survey (the most recent year for which income data are available), roughly 3.5 percent of American households had income exceeding $200,000. That translates into only about one in every 29 families earning a high enough income to allow them to shoulder the tuition burden of the typical Jewish family. Many families would have to earn well in excess of that, depending on their situations (for example, larger families, special-needs cases). Clearly, a system that requires all (or most) of its participants to be in the top few percent of income-earners is not sustainable in the long-run.

Luckily, our community is blessed with a much higher percentage of families who are in that top 3.5 percent. But it is far from smooth sailing for these families. The reality is that most of these families are under extreme pressure to continue making the “big bucks” just to keep their heads above water. A place amongst the top incom- earners often requires the sacrifice of hours at home with the family, the pursuit of riskier and more demanding professions, and forgoing attention to spiritual and personal health. Relationships between husbands and wives are strained and children sorely miss quality time with their parents. Many families live paycheck-to-paycheck and are not able to save for unforeseen emergencies, family smachot, college education, and retirement.

Additionally, many families are having fewer children than originally planned and younger couples openly discuss postponing childbearing until they can “afford” it. It is inconceivable that such an outcome is in the spirit of the Torah, whose very first mitzvah is to be fruitful and multiply.

The model we have for funding yeshiva education is broken. It is a problem we’ve ignored for too long and one we can’t afford to turn a blind eye to any longer. I admit that it is much easier to articulate the problem than it is to find a solution. In order to ease the burden on parents, we will have to either find new sources of revenue (other than tuition), cut costs, or some combination of the two. Many good ideas have been suggested, but the odds are that multiple avenues will have to be pursued to find a solution. I believe that there are three broad areas that need to be examined.

First, and perhaps most important, we need to shift the financial burden of educating our children from a parental one to a communal one. In order to accomplish this, we will need our rabbinic and lay leadership to be at the forefront of moving us in that direction. They must pursue a rigorous re-education of the community in the primacy of supporting our yeshivas and take a leadership role in designing and implementing specific programs to accomplish this. One area to be focused on is reprioritizing our tzedakah dollars towards local causes, especially our yeshivas. This is not only our responsibility as a community but is mandated by halacha as well. The rabbis have to take a leadership role in educating the general population that the funding of our schools needs to be a priority whether or not you have school-age children.

Second, the schools themselves have an obligation to re-examine their cost structures. Some in our community believe that our yeshiva day schools operate in a wasteful manner and that much “fat” can be cut from operating budgets. My experience as a board member of one of our local yeshivas has taught me that quite the opposite is true. As a general rule they run extremely lean and are very conscious of every dollar spent, knowing that the financial burden on parents is already overwhelming. Tuition costs have roughly doubled (in inflation-adjusted dollars) over the past 25 years. Many services that were considered luxuries a generation ago are now considered necessities. I don’t think that anyone believes that our teachers are overpaid, and their salaries and benefits represent 80 to 85 percent of a school’s budget. Much of the other 15 to 20 percent of costs are fixed (mortgage, utilities, etc.). In order to make a real dent in the cost structures of our schools we will have to re-examine some of the core frameworks we take for granted.

Last, we as a community must seriously examine other spending that contributes indirectly (and sometimes directly) to our inability to properly fund our yeshivas. It will be difficult to convince potential donors of a crisis when they observe evidence of plenty, including the extravagance of our smachot, the homes we live in, the cars we drive, and numerous other outward displays of affluence. Surely our rabbis can help guide us in this area of our lives as well.

Every generation has a defining challenge. A couple of generations ago, it was Shabbat observance in an era of “if you don’t come to work on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Monday.” Today, the tuition crisis is our defining issue. If we want to pass on our glorious heritage to the next generation, we simply must find a way to ensure the long-term viability of those institutions charged with educating the next generation of Jews. The consequences of failing are simply too frightening to consider.