Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Trimming the Fat

The cost of yeshiva tuition seems to be the number one topic of conversation. I can see why. Given the amount of money that many yeshivas are charging, parents are being priced out of this education, many of whom are making salaries that place them high on the earning scale. There's lots of talk about wholesale changes to the system to bring it into line with what just about everyone could afford. But such wholesale changes haven't been made by even one yeshiva, to my knowledge, never mind across the board. So then, where are we headed?

Perhaps, instead of advocating for complete change, something yeshivas don't seem capable of delivering both because they can't and they don't want to, those who are paying the tuition, or trying to, should be concentrating on just one area of change, and pursuing that area zealously and steadily.

But how to pick that change, that is the problem. It's not only yeshivas which are stubborn about change to the system: parents are as well. What parent A sees as a "piece of fat" that could be trimmed with no loss of "flavor," parent B sees as absolutely necessary. Parent C will pick a wholly different item to be cut, and so will parents D,E,F and so forth down the line.

However, what if we could get parents to all agree to the following: there will be no tuition raises for the next X years--4-5 years as the range? That's right--a tuition freeze. I'm guessing that even those parents who can pay the high tuition would not complain if tuition did not go up: who in their right minds complains when something doesn't raise its prices?!

What does this gain us? For one thing, it would give back parents the ability to plan a bit long range. If tuition remains steady in the budget it's easier to allocate your funds, knowing that you won't be hit with a hike and thus destroying your budget. For another thing, it would force the yeshivas to make decisions they have been avoiding making. It's one thing to fight the parents when the parents are complaining about specific things THEY want changed. But a freeze on tuition puts the ball squarely back into the yeshiva's hands. They would not be getting any additional funds--now where are THEY going to cut in order to hold the line? They couldn't exactly blame the parents (okay, yes they could but hey, who promised them life would be easy?) because the parents would not be fixated on dozens of items they want changed--the change would be left up to the yeshivas.

Yes the yeshivas would bluster and claim that it can't be done, that it's going to be painful, that a few years of no hikes and the yeshiva would be forced to close its doors, that expenses go up, not down. So? The mantra would be: read my lips--you're not getting any raises, so live on what you have.

Why pick this one item to be THE item of change? As mentioned above, even the wealthy could get behind the idea of not paying more. Certainly those who are pinched would get behind it. I think that communities could get their otherwise recalcitrant community rabbanim behind it--after all, parents aren't talking about taking over the yeshivas or undue meddling. It's far easier to get a large group behind you when you are advocating only ONE change than when you are advocating for dozens of changes. The perception is different to the public. In checking with some people who are still in the tuition paying years I've gotten the information that the yeshivas their children/grandchildren attend have raised tuition over the last five years anywhere from 11-29% across those five years. A tuition freeze for an extended period would mean that parents would not have to find an extra 11-29% more money to pay for their kids.

I'm not saying this plan is foolproof and will magically solve all the problems in the yeshiva system. But it is a place to begin, and though boards may bluster and harumph that it can't be done, it CAN be done. It's one item, not dozens. Could you see yourself getting behind such a plan? Would you advocate for it? Would you join others in saying "That's all there is--make do"?


Tuvi said...

It's not that what you are suggesting isn't a good idea--it is. Pick one change and fight for it. A tuition freeze for X years would certainly be helpful. The problem is that there are still going to be people who are going to push for what they want changed and the rest of us don't matter to them. And there will be yeshivas that will resist even this one change. That was the bad news. The good news is that if enough people get vocal about just one change across all yeshivas we might get some momentum going and we might actually see that one change happen.

rejewvenator said...

Just a thought, but if you freeze tuition, Yeshivot will likely try to make up the difference by fundraising. Practically speaking, this has two effects. One is that it is a voluntary rise in tuition for those parents who decide to contribute more. Second, those few wealthy donors who, in response to the new rules, decide to pitch in and donate big money, will ultimately decide which programs and staff to cut, and those cuts will be made in line with their beliefs about what's important.

Anonymous said...

If tuition is frozen and costs go up, then there are still going to be the same fights about where to make the cuts -- fire teachers and have larger classes, cut some subjects, reduce scholarships, etc.

Allen said...

Anonymous, but it won't be the parents fighting with the yeshivas about those cuts. The schools will have to get off their behinds and decide on where to cut because they won't have a choice. Sure there are going to be parents not happy with what the school may decide is the place to cut. But those same parents aren't happy now and neither are the rest of us because NO cuts are being made by the schools. At this point any cut would be welcome.

You are never going to get all parents behind all the different ways the yeshivas could reduce their expenses but a long term tuition freeze might get enough of them to cooperate. And about those wealthy people who might donate a large sum to a yeshiva but expect to have some input into how it is used--that's some of why we are in this situation to begin with.

Kayla said...

At this point I don't care what the yeshivas do, which cuts they make but let them do something to reduce the cost to parents! All thye other suggestions that different parents and groups have thrown out have been ignored by the yeshivas. I would sure get behind a long tuition freeze and let the yeshivas figure out where they are going to cut.

Right now I don't care about class sizes or firing teachers and administrators or giving less extras. All I want is some financial relief. The yeshivas have been resisting all suggestions that parents have been putting out. Fine, let them make the decision, but let them do it now!

Lion of Zion said...

"In checking with some people who are still in the tuition paying years I've gotten the information that the yeshivas their children/grandchildren attend have raised tuition over the last five years anywhere from 11-29% across those five years."

have you seen the data on the yeshiva tuition talk blog? one school went 11% not over 5 years but per year!

anyway, great idea, but the sine qua non its success is that parents grow a backbone. do you honestly see that happening?

alpidarkomama said...

But if tuition freezes, wouldn't that also mean that teacher salaries would be frozen for 4-5 years? I can't imagine my employer telling me that I would have no raise in salary for that long. Of course, I don't know what the answer is, and we homeschool!

Lion of Zion said...

although here's one aspect that makes your proposal less drastic to the school's book keepers than it seems.
if tuition is 10k and parents demand a cap at 8k, then the school has to make due with 2k less per student. but the truth is that x% of students are paying less than 8k to begin with. so it's not really a net loss of 2k per student across the board.
on the other hand, if x% is that high, there won't be enough support for the cap to begin with. they have nothing to gain and all to lose.
i.e., to have any chance at widespread support the cap would have to be set substantially lower than the average tuition paid, not the advertised tuition rate.

Trudy said...

Sure, I would be in favor of a long term freeze on tuition. At least something would be getting done. But you hit on the problem, the one Lion also mentions. "Could you see yourself getting behind such a plan? Would you advocate for it? Would you join others in saying "That's all there is--make do"?

Plenty of people who might get behind this plan as long as someone else was organizing things and telling them exactly what to do or say. This would require a strong organizing committee with some access to some funds. This would need to be not just one yeshiva targetted but all the yeshivas in the area. This would need ads in the Jewish papers and on the Jewish websites and blogs. This would need people who can write to draft form letters for others to send out. This would need a letter to be sent to all yeshivas that it's not just you but all yeshivas are now going to have to freeze tuition because we, the people have hit our limits. This would need some research to get the names of all the board members on all the yeshivas and target them with a special letter. In short, you'd need someone or a group of someones who are dedicated to fommenting a rebellion. Unless and until you get THAT group on board this is a good idea that won't go anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Not necessarily Alpidarkomama would that mean no raises. The school might cut in other areas. But if they cut out raises? I haven't seen a raise in my job in two years and unless something really radical happens to the economy soon I won't see one this year either. A raise is a perk, not a given.

Lion of Zion said...


profk didn't say that teachers can't get raises for 5 years. but it's up to the school to decide the best way to make the cuts. maybe assistants have to be let go, maybe class size increased, maybe adminstatration trimmed, maybe progressive pedagogy jettisoned, and just maybe pay freezes for 5 years.

also, what teachers don't realize is that in the long run it's in their best interests as well to make tuition more affordable. if teachers fight tooth and nail to keep every benefit and get annual increases, they may be successful now but find themselves unemployed down the line when parents have no choice but to pull kids from day schools.

i don't understand why teachers don't realize this. all the complaining is coming from parents, but don't teachers realize their jobs are on the lines as well? all i see are comments from teachers defending their own status quo (or seeking to improve it). yet surely teachers, with their insider's perspective, have some good suggestions how to make tuition more affordable.

so again, teachers too need to be speaking up to improve schools' financials. they have to realize that their lot is with the parents. (we can argue back and forth about the inherent value of paying good teachers, that parents have to realize there is inherently a high cost in private education, etc., but all these debates will mean nothing when tuition crosses the threshold and parents pull their kids)

Anonymous said...

alpidarkomama: Yes this would likely mean not only a salary freeze, but in essence a cut since it would also require teachers and faculty to pay more of their benefits (i.e. health insurance) as the cost of those benefits increase. On the other hand, that is already happening to in many industries. The alternative is layoffs and larger classes. It's very easy for people to say they want a freeze, but they have to recognize it means giving something up. It might make more sense to say that tuition increases are going to be capped at the percentage that incomes are going up in the community. For the past two years that would mean, in most communities, no increases.

Micha said...

Trudy is right that it would need a good committee to get things started and do the organizing to be able to hit all the schools at once. But even before you get that committee together you would need some sense of whether the parents would come on board once the committee does its work.

My feeling is that this would have a chance to work. Saying tuition freeze isn't telling the yeshivas how to make do with the money, something they fight parents about. You don't like us telling you how to run the yeshiva? No problem. But you aren't going to have more and more money to run with.

So the question now is how do you find out if you could get parents to support this if you get a committee together to do the grunge work?

Lion of Zion said...


"I haven't seen a raise in my job in two years and unless something really radical happens to the economy soon I won't see one this year either."

agreed. but on the other hand, many of the people arguing against teachers' raises for this reason saw high raises during the good years that were much higher than the raises teachers got.

it also important to realize that even if there is no salary raise, teachers may still be getting stealth raises. i.e., a school with rising tuition that keeps the tuition benefit for staff constant has effectively given the staff a tax-free raise. same with health benefits. although employee contributions have gone up, employers are still paying more on their end too--another tax-free raise.
finally, in my own lifetime i've seen the day school calendar shrink (my son had 161 days of school last year, including half fridays and numerous other half days), so even though salaries may look flat, that has to be adjusted by relative classroom hours.

Anonymous said...

I can tell you how you won't get this to work--going to the gedolim of our communities. They'd either turn you down flat or they'd form a committee and it would take that committee at least two years to study the matter by which time the yeshiva system will have imploded around them.

This will only work if it comes from the bottom up, not the top down. It's going to have to be a grassroots movement. And for that to work two things will have to happen. One, parents are going to have to substitute some action for just complaing. Two, parents are going to have to lose their fears that the yeshivas will get back at them somehow and it will ruin their kids chances of making a shidduch or being successful.

Lion of Zion said...


i disagree.
such an initiative should be undtertaken on a school-by-school basis. every school has its own needs, quirks, etc. and i think people get distracted and bogged down by trying to make this things community-wide efforts.


"parents are going to have to lose their fears that the yeshivas will get back at them"

you can't dismiss a legitimate fear that schools will use scholarship blackmail on disruptive parents

Dave said...

The problem with trimming the fat is that if you've never done it before, "the fat" is what gets to decide what gets trimmed.

Anonymous said...

Dave: Don't be so cynical. Administrators may decide to cut their own salaries and perks. Maybe one or two will fire themselves.

Rae said...

You could be right Lion that this wouldn't work in Brooklyn because of the sheer number and types of yeshivas present there. But I think a community effort could work in communities where there are only a few schools, like Far Rockaway or maybe 5T or even Bergen County.

Even if you left it that it would be only the parents of an individual school going after that school for the tuition freeze, you would still need to publicize the fact that this is not just happening in that school but that parents all over are making the same demands for a tuition freeze.

Just a little early for Purim Torah Anonymous--would love to see an administrator fire himself.

Lion of Zion said...


in some of these cases there shouldn't even be so many schools. The fact that they all exist to begin shows there is little point in trying to coordinate such an effort.

Grass roots initiatives work best when focussed narrowly. I see little practical reason to coordinate such an effort.

But anyway, who are we kidding. We're all talking theoretical here because we know parents themselves won't take this or other promising ideas seriously enough to act on them

Anonymous said...

LOZ - yet surely teachers, with their insider's perspective, have some good suggestions how to make tuition more affordable.

LOZ, this is crazy talk! Any teacher that would deign to make suggestions to the administration or to the board quickly becomes labelled "trouble" and is eventually fired. We've all seen it happen, and no teacher with any sense will ever rock the boat this way.


JS said...

I don't see how this could possibly work.

You wrote, "complete change, [is] something yeshivas don't seem capable of delivering both because they can't and they don't want to..."

But you then expect them to follow through on a multi-year tuition freeze? They will simply say "impossible" and will say it can't be done (and they don't want to do it).

Besides, why should they bother? You can't get parents to agree on anything, let alone have enough agree to put substantial pressure on any school. For whatever reason, people are afraid to come forward to join together to advocate for change. Even something benign and relatively non-confrontational like this people won't do. So, I don't blame the yeshivas for just going with what works.

But, let's say they did agree. You argue it's a good approach as the parents don't nitpick on little things to change, the school can decide. Problem is, once the school makes a change - no more music classes, for example - a group of parents will get ticked off. Or, say, cut the number of after school clubs - yet another group of parents now gets upset. It's an impossible situation because no one has the guts to do what is difficult - not the parents and not the administrators and board members.

It's easier to just keep the status quo and deal with complaints.

If you want real change, do it for yourself and your family, forget the system. If enough people just think of themselves and their family and what's best for them, the system will change on its own.

Anonymous said...

ProfK, at this point, it isn't much of a tuition crisis anymore, but rather a dearth of birth crisis. Freeze or no freeze, tuition is already at a level such that people are choosing to have fewer children (and IMO, fewer children than are necessary to counteract the slow but inexorable decline of the Modern Orthodox).


Lion of Zion said...

article in today's NYT that city schools can't have bake drives because homemade products are forbidden. another contributor to the decline of baking skills among young people?