Written for Christian School Administrator, A publication of the Association of Christian Schools International
Imagine the impact on enrollment at your school if tuition could be reduced by fifty percent while doubling the amount of financial aid available to struggling families? Consider what might happen if such a decision caught the attention of your local newspaper, radio and television stations? Now imagine that despite sharply reduced tuition rates the school your children attend could still provide a world-class education. Imagine.
Are you intrigued? I hope so because this is not just an exercise in wistful thinking. It is a matter of survival. I’m certainly not a prophet but I don’t think there is much risk in predicting that Christian schools must find a way to keep themselves financially accessible or there are going to be far fewer schools in ten years.
If, however Christian schools are willing to follow the lead of colleges and universities like Harvard, Duke, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Yale, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, and Emory they could actually reduce their tuition and still provide a quality education. Impossible you say. Not really. Consider this single fact. The University of Texas system could provide all of its undergraduate students free tuition if it would simply increase what it takes from its endowment by less than an additional one per cent per year.
Still unconvinced? Then let me ask you to exercise your imagination a bit more. Imagine, for example, how much more difficult it will be to recruit and retain quality teachers to educate and mentor your children as the differences between what your school can pay and what the local public school district can pay continues to widen. That problem is already real but it is only going to worsen as the number of boomers reaching retirement age increases steeply over the next five to ten years intensifying competition for quality teachers.
Let’s continue this exercise a bit. Imagine what happens to enrollment at your school as school choice options, including home schooling and charter schools grow in popularity. Now further imagine the impact from rapidly changing demographics in all regions of the country, or from yet unforeseen advances in technology, or from increasing hostility as our culture drifts even further from its Judeo-Christian roots, or from declining church support. Now, after considering all of those scenarios are you ready to imagine a new funding paradigm, one radically different from current practice?
But, you ask, what would a new paradigm look like? That is a fair question for any parent, school administrator, or Board member to ask. After all, I suspect that your school has already implemented just about every thoughtful funding idea ever presented at an ACSI convention. First there was the switch from candy sales to an annual fund built around a professional development strategy. Next the school board adopted and implemented the idea of cost based tuition. Those were wise and essential first steps. But even with those changes your school is still finding it difficult to fully bridge the current funding gap, much less the chasm that lies ahead, nor can your school appropriately compensate its teachers or keep up while costs related to technology, facilities and curriculum keep climbing.
Let’s be honest. Financing Christian schools has always been a challenge. So, given that the cost of providing education will continue to increase is there any real hope that a solution to the funding dilemma can be found.
The answer, of course, is yes. But it is not a simple, easy yes. School leaders can’t just attend a three-day seminar and walk away with a plan to build sustainable funding. That is both naïve and unrealistic. It is equally unrealistic to assume that your school’s current and future funding needs are going to be met by the same people who struggle to pay tuition. As a parent you fully understand that reality. After all the need isn’t an extra hundred thousand or two. The long-term need is for millions of dollars.
Hopefully I have your attention. Both compassion and excellence come with a price. A school can’t just give away education. Someone always pays. In most Christian schools that someone is usually the classroom teachers and administrative staff. Yes, parents sacrifice as well but not in the same way as teachers and staff.
As costs continue to escalate, however, even that sacrifice isn’t going to be enough. Harvard and the other schools I listed earlier in this article were able to lower their tuition and largely eliminate student loans because long ago they discovered a new funding paradigm. If your school is ready to join them on the journey to fiscal health here are four thoughts for forging that new path.
STEP ONE: DISCARD YOUR OLD WINESKINS
I can’t state this forcefully enough. Business as usual must end in Christian schools. While we dare not surrender our non-negotiables, when it comes to organizational practice nothing should escape intense scrutiny.
Schools like Harvard and Yale have been able to make radical changes in their pricing policies because they have done two things well. First, they have consistently practiced wise fiscal planning and secondly, they have aggressively built strong resource development programs, particularly in the areas of planned giving and endowment. You can afford to be generous when your endowment, like Harvard’s, exceeds thirty-six billion dollars.
Christian schools are right to be concerned about the impact of continuously rising tuition. But unless schools build the right kind of strong, sustainable financial base they won’t be able to make any real reductions in tuition rates without putting themselves at greater financial risk. Thirty-six billion may be out of your school’s reach, but ten, twenty, or even fifty million or more is not.
STEP TWO: IGNITE THE IMAGINATION AND PASSION OF PEOPLE
If you are honest you’ll probably admit that support for your school among local churches and within your community is not a strong as you would hope. That is unlikely to change until school leaders and key influencers in the school commit themselves aggressively to the role of what Max Dupree calls, tribal story teller.
School leaders must be willing to break away from their desk and from the confines of their campus at every opportunity to remind people in the community of the essential work being accomplished at the school they lead. To do that well leaders and other people of influence must learn to tell stories that focus on impact rather than input. People need to know that your school makes a significant difference in the lives of students and that the graduates of your school are becoming difference makers in the world. The way to a person’s heart and mind is not through statistics, it is through stories; compelling stories, well told.
STEP THREE: ESTABLISH AND SUSTAIN STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS
If a school is to fulfill this goal it must do two things well. First, school leaders and supporters must identify specific kinds of key people; people of wisdom, wealth, and influence. This is less difficult to do than you might think, but it is important to know what to look for and how to make first contact.
Once identified the next step is to win their hearts. That takes a winsome spirit, those compelling stories I just mentioned and time. The kinds of partnership I envision don’t happen overnight. And everyone involved must remember two key principles. First you must understand that wealthy people don’t give their money, they invest their money. And they invest their money in kingdom work the same way they invest it in the stock market. They invest where they believe they will see the greatest return on that investment. Therefore, they’ve got to have confidence in a school’s ability to deliver its mission and live out its values with excellence.
Secondly, it is important to remember that wealthy people won’t fund your passion. They will only fund their own passion. Your task, therefore, is to infect them with your passion. That won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen unless a school is willing to invest the necessary time and money in the effort.
STEP FOUR: INITIATE AND CULTIVATE AN EFFECTIVE, INTEGRATED RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY
There is a lot to learn before any school can genuinely help people become wise stewards. There are complex financial and personal dynamics at work when people are thinking about how to manage and dispose of their estates. Tax laws must be considered, as well as personal life situations including the possible need for long term care. It takes continually increasing knowledge of planned giving strategies and ever deeper understanding of people if a school is going to help any individual make wise decisions about giving. Now is the time to initiate that education.
Perhaps you are beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed by the task I’ve outlined in this article. If so let me ask you once again to engage your imagination. Only this time I want you to imagine a world without strong Christian schools.
Imagine a world in which you as parents lose their strongest ally in equipping your children to boldly and effectively take their place in an increasingly challenging world. Imagine those children without a true community of faith and learning; a dynamic place where they learn from remarkable teachers to “take every thought captive to Christ.” Imagine our current culture left with fewer examples of salt and light. Imagine sending your child into the challenging environment of a secular university without strong academic preparation and a well-developed Christian world view. Imagine. Now act.
How to Get Into Harvard, Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2007 Gloomy Outlook for Vouchers, Joel Belz, World, November 24, 2007 College tuitions rise while endowments simply swell, Lynne Munson, USA TODAY, October 18, 2007 Harvard Trims Tuition Bills for Families, John Hechinger, Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2007 Top-tier colleges ease cost burden, Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY, December 11, 2007