[Editor’s Note: This post is the third of four that look at alternative funding models and approaches for Christian schools. The purpose of this series is to encourage dialogue, both within the Christian school movement and at individual schools, about the sustainability challenges facing much of the sector. While some of the ideas presented by the authors in this series may run contrary to “traditional” practice in Christian education, the purpose again is not to provide recommendations or guidance, but rather to spark thinking and discussion along these lines. We encourage readers to submit comments below the post to begin the dialogue and share ideas.]
Many of our Christian schools today are “stuck”—meaning they are too expensive to grow or too inexpensive to grow. Many either can’t grow because there are not enough affluent people who can afford their tuition and their additional costs are too high to grow by increasing enrollment through financial aid, or they primarily serve families who yield a net tuition that cannot cover their increased additional per-student costs. What about a third way that might get schools unstuck financially, academically, and missionally? What if we think about serving affluent, low-income, and middle-class families alike in a way that doesn’t get stuck on additional per-student costs? The idea is to get our thinking unstuck, and maybe our finances and enrollment can get unstuck too.
The financial math goes like this:
- To sustain: Fixed costs = current total net tuition + supplemental revenue (fundraising, rental, etc.)
- To grow: Variable costs per additional student < net tuition (less financial aid) per additional student
What the math basically means is that we spend almost all of our money on our fixed costs, which we pay for through tuition and whatever other revenue we can develop, oftentimes through fundraising and facilities. This is our basic, normal budget that we live with and might even feel stuck in each year. When considering how to grow, we need to ask ourselves: How much money does an additional student actually cost above our normal budget—supplies, a desk we have around somewhere, and a few fees? Those students don’t actually cost much in real dollars above the staff salaries and facilities costs, to which we’ve already committed and that constitute most of our budgets. “Giving away” financial aid is bad thinking even from a financial perspective. However need-based financial aid allows schools to “build revenue” with cash they would not have otherwise received and support costs they’ve already committed to paying.
The academics go like this:
According to the landmark Coleman Report, the most influential school-level factor for individual academic performance is the family income of the other students in the classroom. This is humbling and sobering, because it points to the importance of socioeconomic diversity in our student body as a key to student outcomes (and not just our curriculum, teacher qualifications, etc.). Segregated schools of affluent students do those students a disservice by not teaching children how to love one’s neighbor, and by not providing students with an opportunity to see themselves as part of a larger community of God’s image-bearers. Segregated schools of low-income students do low-income students a disservice by depriving them of a meaningful indicator for academic growth. Diversity in socioeconomic status can benefit students of any and every background.
The mission goes like this:
God has entrusted a unique mission to each individual Christian school, which should guide each school’s practices and policies, and infuse the life and culture of the school. However, we also need to be intentional in ensuring that we are attending to the larger “mission” of Scripture and the Gospel: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:1-2a, NIV). If we are serving families but not intentionally including the poor, are we fulfilling Jesus’ mission?
In summary, without a vast pool of affluent Christians paying tuition, we cannot grow if we do not serve lower-income communities. The reverse is also true—without a vast pool of affluent Christians making donations, we cannot grow if we only serve low-income communities. And even if we have a pool of affluent Christians aligned with our schools either as families or donors, can we honor our Lord and our families both academically and missionally in either polarized context? This is but a sketch of an idea that we are trying to live out at The City School, a growing school in Philadelphia, where because of Jesus we’re committed to pursuing shalom in the city through excellent and accessible education. We have made a lot of hard decisions based on the premise outlined here and still have so much to learn. Getting unstuck is absolutely an “already but not yet” premise, but we have seen good fruit and encourage other schools to weigh what it means to get unstuck in their own unique communities.
Questions for Reflection at Your School
- In what ways does our school purposefully cultivate a socioeconomically diverse student body? How might this be beneficial to the learning and development of our students?
- How do we, or can we, structure financial aid and tuition policy and decisions (e.g., need-based, variable tuition) to accomplish this?
- How do we ensure that our admissions, financial aid, and related practices are aligned with our unique school mission, as well as the universal mission of the Gospel?
About the Author
Jake Becker began serving as Head of School at The City School in 2011, where he first became involved as a parent. Jake currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and Eastern University. Jake lives in Germantown with his wife, Jessica, and their two children, Caleb and Maggie. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
View the first and second posts in this alternate funding series.
- Can You Outsource Your School Operations? by Philip Scott
- Becoming More Affordable: The Pursuit of Third-Income Sources by Jay Ferguson