A Quality Education at the Lowest Possible Price is Oxymoronic

Faith-based K-12 schools do miraculous things. If you don’t believe that, analyze the academic achievements of their students, and, 35 years later, see what their graduates are doing. I am constantly amazed at what my 173 high school classmates are doing today, not to mention the three years of students that came before our class and the three years of students that came after our class. What’s miraculous about it is that faith-based schools have, for the most part, lower cost of education statistics than their public school counterparts. While costs keep rising, tuition-charging schools work tirelessly to keep tuition and tuition increases “reasonable.” Public schools do the same, but because the cost of education is not seen by the general public, the complaints are more about “tax increases” to cover revenue shortfalls, or program cuts, such as those being experienced in public school districts as the focus shifts away from music and art programs which stimulate brain activity, creative thinking and discipline, and move toward STEM initiatives and standardized testing.

Today, tuition at a faith-based high school isn’t a 3-figure number like it was back then. That tuition figure is now in the 4- or 5- figure realm. At my first full-time job out of college, I was stunned when I discovered that price of a Cadillac was just over $10,000.  At my salary of $12,000 per year, I wondered how anyone could afford such a vehicle!  Some families comments about private school tuition today are quite similar.

Further, that 4- or 5- figure tuition is usually not the “cost of education” at the school, either. It’s, in many cases, lower.  The reason why many schools don’t equate their tuition with the cost of education is that they feel it would price them out of existence, even if there were copious amounts of financial aid available. The problem is exacerbated when 2 or more children are enrolled in the school.

Private and faith-based schools work tirelessly to keep their costs as low as possible, and their tuition as “affordable” as possible. However, market forces and the mindset of the market (that is, the parents and guardians who pay tuition), are rarely considered. There’s a great anecdote about 5 private schools in New York that were located in close proximity to each other. One of the five decided to own the position of “affordable,” and offer the lowest tuition of the five. The result? It closed. The mindset of the market was that if the tuition was “comparable” at the other four schools, and this fifth school was lower than everyone else, then there must be something inferior about it. It was a purely logical conclusion, and pure logic rarely wins any “sales” battle. Passion, or, at least some type of emotional connection, is also necessary to seal the deal. Connecting emotion with logic is essential for success.

If you agree with that statement, you now understand why elimination of the arts, and opting for a myopic focus on the logical applications of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is a recipe for potential disaster.

Many faith-based schools, however, have, at the heart of their core values, a mission to serve and educate the poor. Yet, these same schools do not have an Advancement or Development Director on staff who can share the great stories of success of the students, and connect the school with potential donors eager to fund successful initiatives.  Why?  Because the school believes they can’t afford one, or, perhaps, the school’s board tells the administrator it can’t afford one.   Some schools have attempted to hire such a person, so long as the salary and benefits of the Advancement or Development Director is funded by the amount of money that they raise.  This makes the task of the new addition to the staff a truly daunting one.  There is no other position in the school that is funded in such a manner.  Certainly, there must be a sufficient number of children in the classroom to fund a teacher, but no school administration says to a teacher, “In order for you to continue to work here, you must recruit students for your classroom.”  The job of the Advancement or Development Director is to generate funds for financial aid or capital improvement projects…not generate revenue so they can earn their salary.

One school I’m familiar with expected a new Development Director to raise $200,000 when it had no database of donors to access and evaluate and no previous development events. All it did was “fundraise.” Further, this new position would also oversee and coordinate all the “fundraisers” in addition to its new development initiatives. Since there was no marketing director of the school either, the position would also be responsible for communication with the various constituencies which supported the school, and those constituencies included current parents. Therefore, Web site maintenance and the parent newsletter would be the responsibility of the incumbent. Further, there was no administrative support for the position, meaning that the new director would be a “do it all” person. If help was necessary, volunteers could be recruited. Today, in a faith-based school, that includes screening volunteers, conducting background checks, monitoring certification course attendance as well as the volunteer’s continuing education on child safety.  Those duties would also fall to the new position.  And since they were coordinating it for development and advancement activities, they might as well coordinate it for the rest of the school.

School administrators wondered why no one applied for the position.

The net result, if someone does accept this challenge, is that the lofty dollar goal will not be achieved in the first year.  Failure to achieve the goal could result in the dismissal of the individual, and the search would start again.  Or, the position would be eliminated and justified by saying, “See…we gave it a try. It doesn’t work.” Schools need to realize and understand that effective development takes three to five years to get rolling so that structures can be put in place, relationships can be developed, and duties can be supported.  Anything less is a design for failure.

One can’t plant a sapling and expect a fruit tree to magically spring up to provide a bountiful harvest for the next year. It must be cultivated. Similarly, Development takes time, which is why it makes sense to move into development sooner rather than later. As the African proverb states, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; second best time is now.”

If your school wants to serve the poor, who may not be able to afford the tuition at your school, and it doesn’t have a Development Director to seek outside sources for funding, you may be relying on inflated tuition amounts so families who can afford to pay tuition are also footing the bill for those that can’t afford to pay, as well as expect current parents to participate in fundraising events to generate additional revenue to benefit the school (since if it benefits the parents directly, it could be deemed as taxable income for the family).  If you haven’t figured it out already, that’s another potential recipe for disaster.