One of the concerns I hear from principals and business managers in just about every school I visit is that they can’t believe parents have a difficult time coming up with their monthly tuition payment when they can go on vacation or they’re driving a brand new truck, SUV or luxury vehicle.

So here’s the explanation.  There are two reasons for this: 1) People will pay for “experiences,” and 2) It all depends on how “the numbers” are presented.

When my family went on vacation when I was a kid, my mom and dad and I, along with my aunt and uncle, all went. All four of them had full-time jobs, and I was enrolled in a Catholic elementary school. But where did we go? Walt Disney World didn’t exist in the 1960s.  We would go to the Jersey Shore and the boardwalk in Atlantic City, the beach in Erie, PA (which was covered with dead fish the year we went), or the big trip – Ontario, Canada, where we visited Toronto and Niagara Falls. You didn’t need a passport in those days, and there were no casinos. There was also SeaWorld in Ohio.  The drive was between 2 to 6 hours wherever we went, so we could drive in a day, stay for a few days, then come back home. There were also no Hampton Inns or Courtyards by Marriott then either. If you could stay in a Hilton, a Marriott, or other “resort” hotel, you were living large. We didn’t. It was a vacation, and the Holiday Inn was a big deal.  It was usually a motel, with no inside hallways, and air conditioning – a great experience after driving in a car that had no air conditioning!

Today, vacations are “Experiences” – the Central Florida attractions and theme parks, a cruise, a trip to wine country in California, or a week in Ireland or Australia. Those are still called vacations, but they’re really experiences. How do you tell the difference? If you come home from your vacation and you feel like you need a vacation, it wasn’t a vacation – it was an “experience.”

That begs the question, “What is the experience of your school?” But that’s a question for another day. Today’s article is about “the numbers.”

Recently, I visited a Web site for a high school that posts its tuition at $11,000+ for the first student, $10,500 for the second, and $10,000 for the third. Sure, financial aid is available, but if you have three kids in high school, that’s $31,500!!  Reading further, I saw there’s a payment plan available, and a parent, if approved, can pay over 10 months.

10-month payment plans are the first things that need to go.  Anyone can do 10 math mentally. Parents may be in your school, touring the wonderful facility, meeting great people, and seeing what an excellent educational experience your school would provide their child. Then the topic of tuition comes along. “Our tuition is $11,000 per year, but we have a 10-pay payment plan if that would help make it affordable for you.” Mentally dividing by 10, the focus is now on the cost, and not on the experience of the school. Anything that’s said after this point is overshadowed by an $1,100 a month price tag.  The only thing costing that much in a family’s budget is their rent or mortgage!

Then, many school administrators will say, “Well, yes, but families have to be able to sacrifice for what they really want for their children.  Every important decision requires sacrifice.”  It certainly does…but if that’s what you’re thinking, you’re still thinking like members of the Great and Silent Generations that knew they had to sacrifice so that the next generation would be in a better financial position than they were.  Even some Baby Boomers understand that – but they’re in their 70’s at this point in time, which is why they’re paying for their grandchildren’s education.

Generation X was the first generation to realize that their lifestyle may not be better than what their parents experienced (there’s that word again), and became known as the “Me” Generation.  Now, elementary schools are dealing with children of the Millennials, and while they have certain characteristics all their own, they’re also dealing with a debt that no other generation had before them – student loans.

And if you’re the administrator of a high school with grades 9-12, you’re dealing with the Millennials too!  A few years ago, I advised that they will tell you that they “deserve” financial aid because (insert any reason you can think of and some that you would have never ever thought of), as well as their expenses for camps, family traditions and sports activities.  Everyone believes they should be treated differently than everyone else.

In addition to talking differently about your school’s tuition, you may also consider not publishing tuition on your school’s Web site, especially if you’re looking to increase enrollment in your school. If a parent calls and wants to know what the tuition is, rather than answering the question with a number, the answer should be phrased like this: “Even though our tuition may be considered significant, it’s to support the excellent program we have in place. We have financial aid available if that’s a concern for you, but before we even talk about the cost, why not pay us a visit so you can see first-hand what our school is like, and if we’re a good fit for your educational goals for your child.”

When you offer financial aid, the cost argument goes away.  If the parent presses for a number, though, your response needs to be, “Oh, so you’re going to pay the full amount of what it costs to educate a child here?  That’s great, and we really appreciate the sacrifice we know that takes!” (That’s where the “sacrifice” terminology comes into play).  If they say, “Oh, no, I’m just trying to get an idea of what it will cost,” that’s your sign to get them to commit to an appointment since, if you’re talking with Millennials, they don’t believe in appointments…they’ll walk in when it’s convenient for them…even if that’s five minutes before you’re ready to leave for the day.

Still, high school administrators don’t believe this, or think that parents will change once they get to high school.  And that’s why many schools are finding it difficult to fill seats.  Sure, it’s economics, but it’s the way parents are handled as “customers,” as members of the service-oriented society they’ve matured in.  And, as Millennials, they expect to be treated they way they want to be treated, not the way your school’s administration wants to treat them.

Four- and five- digit figures are big…and scary. In the world of Development and Institutional Advancement, consider that many organizations consider anything over $2,500 as a major gift. For donors that have a capacity to give that amount or over, relationships are developed so that these individuals can be personally asked for a contribution of that size. Rare is the case that someone will write a check for $10,000 for an annual appeal letter they get in the mail from an organization, even if they’ve been associated and engaged with it. If $2,500 is considered and “in person” ask, then expecting a parent to simply enroll their child in a school when they see from the Web site that the tuition is $3,500 or even $5,500 is a stretch. So let’s break those numbers down a bit.

If you’ve seen the most recent Mercedes-Benz commercial, or have searched on-line, you may have seen this: “Drive a Mercedes-Benz for as little as $349 a month.” Notice that it doesn’t say “own” a Mercedes-Benz – just “drive” one. That’s a low-mileage lease payment, and then tax must be added, and money is due up front, including a down payment, security deposit and first month’s payment since with the lease, you pay for the car before you drive it.

The advertised $349 doesn’t seem all that bad, does it? And, even if the driver is paying closer to $400 a month for the “experience” of driving a Benz, that pales in comparison with the $1,100 a month for tuition at the high school mentioned above. That’s also one reason why people will drive a luxury car, and complain that they can’t afford this month’s tuition payment.

The simple fact is that as school personnel, we’re not very good at sales. Teachers deal with knowledge, with facts, and with information; sales deals with emotions. It’s why you need to get families into your school and let them be part of the experience and feel that they’re already a part of the school community – even if they’re “just looking,” and even if your school has a waiting list. Somewhere down the road, that waiting list might disappear, and you really don’t want to simply dismiss parents because you’re full right now. You need to always be filling your “pipeline” with prospects. Indeed, enrollment is sales.

So let’s take a look at how we can really talk about that tuition number, and make it a reasonable one.

Most states require 180 days of school, and each school day is at least 5.5 hours. Just for easy math, let’s make that 6. That’s 1,080 hours. If tuition is $11,000, then the real cost of attending the school is only $10.18 an hour…which is a little more than what child care providers (ok, “babysitters,”) are making today. And that’s before any kind of financial aid. If your tuition is $7,500, that’s about $7.50 an hour. Again, before financial aid. That’s a conversation that will start parents thinking about how they can afford to do this, rather than seeing a huge number, thinking that’s out of reach for them, and choosing a different, perhaps even less desirable educational environment for their child – all because they didn’t experience the distinctive difference your school can provide.

One of the most depressing conversations I’ve ever had was with a teacher lamenting the fact that their school’s tuition was so high. “How much,” I asked. “$1,900. That’s a lot of money for some of our families!” I said, “That’s that’s about $2 an hour,” to which the teacher responded, “Oh…I pay more than that for parking.” I responded, “And at $10.50 a day, some people spend that on a couple of cups of premium coffee.”

Perhaps your school and schools in your area are extending their school year. If so, the cost per hour of classroom instruction is now even more affordable than ever!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2013-2023 (Original Publication Date: 20130901)