Counting the Cost
Is There a Future for Christian Schooling in America?
Let’s see. What will $350,000 buy in today’s market place? Well if you live, as I do, in Denver, Colorado, $350,000 will buy you a 2,500 square foot, well appointed house in a nice community. But that $350,000 is just the beginning. Once you factor in the impact of interest, the cost of routine maintenance, and major renovations or repairs, then the final price tag on that house increases to over a million dollars. So, are you interested? Amazingly most people are. Even in a down housing market, $350,000 homes are a dime a dozen, so to speak.
Indeed, whatever the cost, most Americans dream of owning their own home. They calculate the cost, consider the alternatives and see home ownership as a positive, even essential thing to do. As a result they will freely commit themselves to a financial obligation that could easily exceed $2,000 per month when all costs are considered. The rather daunting price tag on home ownership is simply seen as a fair exchange of value all things considered.
So, what else will $350,000 buy? Well, if you live in Denver, or almost anyplace else for that matter, and you desire that your child receive a truly Christian education you will easily spend that amount, and perhaps much more. And that is for a single child. Do I have your attention?
You are probably tempted to question my figures. That’s fair. Let me tell you how I arrived at that $350,000 figure. Let’s assume that your child is beginning kindergarten this year. And let’s assume that yearly tuition for a single student in kindergarten at your local Christian school is $4,000. Let’s now assume that you intend to keep that child in a Christian school through high school graduation. And let’s further assume that tuition will increase on average at five percent, per year.
If you are willing to accept those assumptions, and frankly they are quite conservative given current and historical realities, then by the time your child graduates you will have spent nearly $68,000 on tuition alone. Add to that the various fees charged by schools, the cost of books, classroom supplies, class trips, athletics and the like and you will easily spend $75,000 on the education of a single child. And in many places the cost could easily double, even triple.
One Christian school here in Denver will open its doors next year with a $10,000 plus tuition price tag. If you are tempted to declare such a tuition level to be outrageous consider this. The average yearly tuition at a private school, not college, but K-12 private school was $17,000 for the 2005-2006 school year. My illustration begins at less than twenty-five percent of that figure.
Seventy-five thousand dollars is a lot of money but it is still a long way from $350,000 you say. Yes it is, so let me add the next element. The current average cost of a four year education at a private college in the United States has climbed to $150,000. Using the same five percent yearly increase I employed earlier that education will cost nearly $270,000 by the time your kindergarten student is ready to head off to college. With that staggering figure in mind you may be tempted to say, well forget the private Christian college, we’ll just send them to the local public college.
That is certainly one possible choice but setting aside the very real theological and sociological issues consider this. In thirteen years the average cost of a public college education will have reached $161, 625 from its current level of $90,000. Now do I have your attention? I hope so. While most people have been focused on the war in Iraq, escalating medical costs, and declining cultural norms they have missed what is happening, and is likely to continue to happen, to the cost of education in this country. It has been skyrocketing with no end in sight.
The price tag placed on Christian schooling has long been an obstacle to many people who might otherwise consider a faith based education for their children. That barrier has simply grown more formidable. And candidly, the vast majority of evangelical families have never seriously considered the option of Christian schooling. Escalating costs simply make it easier for those families to dismiss the Christian school option.
Now let me add one more wrinkle. If the research done by Josh McDowell is taken seriously we may truly be living in the last Christian generation. That is the title of his latest book and it paints a pretty grim picture of what the kids in our churches believe and how those beliefs are shaping their lives. Not everyone agrees with McDowell’s assessment, but you’d have to been remarkably naïve or utterly disconnected from culture to miss what is happening to our young people.
It’s not that our kids are terrible people. McDowell carefully counters that assertion. It is simply that our kids have dismissed the Scriptures as the only reliable compass by which they can chart the course of their lives, embracing cultural norms rather than timeless truths.
How has this happened? In his book McDowell identifies current educational practice, coupled with the pervasive power of popular culture as the primary culprit. He calls on churches to take a more proactive role in equipping kids to think and act biblically. Sadly, at least to me, he does not view the typical Christian school as much of an ally. It isn’t that he is pro-public school, or anti-Christian school, it’s just that he doesn’t see much that differentiates Christian school kids from their public school peers.
People will spend enormous sums on a house. Why? It really is quite simple. We all need a place to live and buying a house seems a better financial decision than renting one. Most people are convinced that the cost of a home ownership is a worthwhile investment. When you connect an essential need like housing to a potentially high return on investment you create powerful personal motivation to act in a certain way.
Sadly, when it comes to choosing an educational option for their children few Christian parents seem equally motivated to make a similar financial investment. Indeed, what little research exists suggests that there is little sense among most evangelical families that Christian schooling is anything more than one educational option among many. And even when Christian schooling is considered few are willing or, in some cases, able to overcome the financial obstacles. Unless Christian school leaders can challenge and change current thinking, and unless They can address very real financial challenges it will become increasingly difficult for many Christian schools to survive.
So what should we do? When that question is posed in the kinds of gatherings of Christian school leaders where I often find myself the response is seldom positive. There seems to be general agreement that declining enrollment is inevitable; that the strong schools will survive and the weak will die.
I simply don’t agree. First of all I know of many strong schools that are in serious financial difficulty. The fact is that most Christian schools operate on such a thin margin that any financial bump in the road can create life threatening challenges. Secondly, I believe that there are workable strategies almost any school can employ that can help them build a strong, sustainable financial foundation. There is a great future for Christian schools, but only if we are willing to dump business as usual in favor of fundamental change.
The following is a phrase I’ve coined to help give shape to the kind of strategies we must employ if we are to win the hearts of the very people who would most benefit from truly remarkable Christian schooling. Our Christian schools must become a compelling story, well told. I see three major components contained in that simple phrase; two explicit, one implicit.
A COMPELLING STORY
Given the confines of this article it is simply impossible to address in any meaningful manner the meaning of that phrase, “a compelling story”. I will, however, make this singular observation. Telling people what you intend to do to their children is far less compelling than telling them stories about what is happening in and through the lives of their children now and beyond graduation. Stories stick; statistics don’t; so tell stories. And by the way that goes for lengthy philosophical discourses as well. You have to win hearts before you win minds. Stories, not lectures make that possible. If you don’t have any stories to tell then you have a major problem.
This too is a far bigger topic than space permits us to explore at present, but I think all of us recognize that we are long past the time when a weekly newsletter, designed on the fly by the school secretary, could be expected to have any impact on parents. You’ve got to be far more creative if you are going to capture and hold the attention of your parents and supporters. Too often your message is viewed as just another snowflake in the blizzard of information that overwhelms your parents and supporters every day. Each snow flake may be unique but who takes the time to check. If you want my attention you’ll have to break from the pack. Seen any red snowflakes recently? I bet you’d remember if you had.
IS THE NECESSARY PREREQUISITE TO TRULY STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS
This is the implication that flows from the first two thoughts. If there is a compelling story, well told, then aren’t we assuming that there is an audience for that message? Who is your current audience? Do they possess the resources necessary to fund your mission now and into the future? If not what must you do to identify those people and then what must you do to build a strong relationship with them? The single most important thing that any Christian school leader will do is to build strategic partnerships with people who can own and then support a school’s mission. Without a compelling story well told, however, that probably won’t happen.
My goal in this article is not to solve the problem I’ve identified. My goal is far more ambitious than that. I want to convince you that the size and scope of the problem is greater than we imagine and that business as usual is a suicidally inadequate response. If I can’t help you see that then nothing else matters because it is unlikely that you will be willing to make the kinds of changes necessary to build the kind of strong financial foundation that will enable you to fulfill your mission in a manner that honors our Lord. People are seldom motivated to change as fully as they must unless they are convinced that the consequences of failure are too high.
So, is it worth the price; that $350,000 price tag I introduced earlier? How do you believe your current parents would respond to that question? What about your pastor? If you suspect that their response would be uncertain or even negative what can you do? The answer is truly simple. You need to follow the admonition of Solomon when reminds us that, “He who winneth souls is wise.”
Solomon wasn’t talking about sharing the gospel. This may surprise some of you, but there was no gospel circa 1,000 BC. What Solomon was saying, however, is equally important. He is reminding us of the power of a winsome witness. If you want people to embrace you or your ideas you must woo them to your position. That is the meaning of the word win. And I’ve discovered that a compelling story well told to people with whom I have developed a relationship is a powerful tool in winning their hearts and minds.