Tuition: The Cost of Education and Marketing Tool

If you’re engaged with marketing your faith-based school to parents and guardians as the best place for their children’s education, you’re probably focusing on its academic excellence, faith formation, and the caring and safe community of your school as the three top reasons why your school provides an excellent educational environment.

Unfortunately, you’re probably crafting the same message to two very different generations of parents: Members of Generation X, a segment of the population that is skeptical of institutions and want immediate results, and the Millennials, who value friendships, connections, and technological immediacy.  If you’re persisting in doing things “the way you’ve always done it,” that’s one of the reasons why today’s parents may not be choosing your school – even though those qualities expressed above are noble and worthy ones.

Both of these groups, however, value accountability and disclosure, and because of that, you may be posting your school’s tuition (as well as second and third child incentives, additional fees, and higher rates for families not affiliated with a sponsoring church or parish).  This may be another reason why parents aren’t choosing your school.  It’s not that you’re posting tuition; it’s just the way in which you’re doing it.  More than likely, you’re listing four- or five-digit figures as the yearly cost.  And big numbers frighten people.

For some reason, school leaders feel compelled to post tuition on the school’s Web site.  If your school’s Web site reflects this, perhaps it’s because you feel it’s important to be open and honest, showing that there is nothing to hide.  Perhaps it’s because that, when Web pages made their way into media, tuition schedules were seen as a way to eliminate some phone calls to the office.

While it is an excellent idea to disclose your fees, keep in mind that if a family has two children, and your tuition for the first child is $4,000 and the second is $3,500, that amounts to a pretty big four-digit number.  Add a third child, or if one of those two are in high school, we’re in five-digit territory.  Also keep in mind that if minimum wage was $15 per hour, that would amount to $30,000 per year before taxes.  So why in the world would you post your tuition, which could change based on a family’s financial situation, parish or church membership, or number of children in the family, especially in the manner in which you’re doing it?

If your answer is because everyone else does, it may help to remember that your school is not like any other school.  In the hundreds of schools I visit every year, administrators are quick to point out, “But we’re different.”  Well, if your tuition is comparable, and you’re marketing to those same “big three” attributes, then you’re really not that different.  If your answer is because colleges do it, realize colleges offer scholarships, as well as financial aid packages and opportunities after parents/guardians and students complete the FAFSA form. Even if there is no direct aid, there are low-interest government-subsidized loans which defer repayment until after graduation.

Some schools are looking at the possibility of loan programs to help parents fund tuition. While it’s great for the school, a loan usually means that payments will be spread out for more than a year – which is very dangerous territory to get into when talking about the elementary and high school experience. No payment deferment for you – payments start right away!

Think about this questions: Why would you “put your tuition out there,” for all the prospective parents and guardians interested in your school to see, think, “There’s no way I can afford that,” and then seek out other educational options even before stepping foot into your school?

If you can’t answer that question with answer that makes logical sense now, remove all the tuition numbers from the Web site until you can. Perhaps you can offer a “range” statement, like, “We realize that every family’s circumstances are different. That is why our families pay anywhere from $250 per child to the full tuition cost of $4,200 per child.”

One of our local schools used this verbiage on their Web site since they employed a cost-based tuition/needs-based aid approach:

School tuition is based on the per-pupil cost of education. The more students the school can attract and retain, the lower the per-pupil cost. The actual cost of education is based on local costs, subsidized by sacrificing faculty and staff who work at lower than market wages. The announced tuition is, until a school reaches target enrollment, a tuition subsidized by considerable fundraising. The actual tuition is the announced tuition minus Scrip credits, financial aid awards from the Parish Tuition Assistance fund, endowment funds, the State tax credit program, and local development efforts.

Parents/guardians may apply for financial aid using our third-party partner,  FACTS.  Applications are encouraged online with supporting documentation to be mailed to verify calculations. A complex formula is applied to all applications and results regarding parents’/guardians’ ability to pay are used to determine a family’s financial need. For maximum consideration, current families should apply by March 15th. Financial aid funds vary each year, and are determined by regular parish collection amounts, interest rates and available program funding.

Payment of tuition must be submitted to accordance with the personalized payment schedule established at the time of admission. In the event of a failure to make timely tuition payments, the student may become ineligible to attend school. Enrollment is dependent on tuition payment. It is the responsibility of the parent.

If a student transfers to another school due to a move from the area, pre-paid tuition may be refunded on a pro-rated basis. Arrangements for any such refund should be made through school administration.

As for your school’s tuition being a marketing tool, remember that a marketing tool is anything that draws someone to find out more information about your school. If you disclose it too quickly, without showing the academic advantages your school has to offer, as well as touring parents and guardians through your school to experience the faith-filled environment in which their children will achieve to their potential, you’ve lost an opportunity for developing a relationship with parents and guardians even before their child becomes a part of your student body.

Any “big-ticket” purchase requires a personal conversation – just remember the last time you purchased a vehicle. Let’s use a $25,000 car for example. If you would pay for that car (with no interest) over five years, your cost would be $5,000 per year. Most elementary school tuitions haven’t crossed that threshold yet, but many high schools have. Yet, schools still insist on sending invoices to parents rather than sitting down with them and reviewing payment options and management opportunities (like scrip or other fundraising account credits).

As for parents entering your school, they’re more familiar with rates they pay for child care – which are usually expressed in weekly or hourly terms.  Take a tip from these child care centers: they don’t post their rates.  They want parents to visit the facility to see if it’s the right environment for their child before costs are discussed.

But let’s take your full-cost tuition at $4250.  Children are in school about 990 hours during the school year.  That translates to $4.30/hour.  The last time I checked, babysitters were earning more than that.  Put your cost in terms that your market/your audience/your parents are familiar and comfortable with.

It is imperative that schools make parents and guardians feel comfortable and confident about the investment they are making in the lives of their children, especially since they’re more than likely making sacrifices to afford tuition. It is simply unacceptable to dissuade parents and guardians from finding out more about your school by posting a tuition that may be beyond their perceived means, and, even if you don’t post your tuition, to lose them when you impersonally send them an invoice, allowing them to make a “no” decision in the privacy of their home. If you want their children and them to become part of your school community, that is a decision they cannot make in isolation. The actions of one affects everyone – and that’s what a community is all about!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2007-2017 (Original Publication Date: 20120625)