Monday, November 23, 2020

I read with interest the piece by Dvorah Vaynman (“The Humiliation of Applying for Yeshiva Tuition Assistance” (July 16, 2020). I think she was brave to write it. I look forward to hearing her next steps suggestions and I agree with her sentiment 100%.

However, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time trying to make ends meet in a local Jewish organization, I would like to point out a few things that she may not have considered.

First of all, there is only one group who is more demoralized by the process than the applicant and that is the scholarship committee themselves. All those I know who are involved in making these decisions on the part of the schools do so with a great deal of agony. On the one hand, they want to be as generous as possible. On the other, they have the responsibility to the parent body, faculty and students to make sure that the schools have the funds to operate.


Second, there is an issue of fairness. Let’s look at a simple example. A hypothetical school has a $10MM budget and a student body of 500. The average cost to educate a student in this scenario is $20,000. Many parents cannot afford to pay full tuition, so the school has two options: raise scholarship funds or raise tuition. All schools do both. In our example, let’s say that a third of the students need an average reduction of $7,500. That leaves a shortfall of $1,275,000. If the school can fundraise half of that (no easy feat) that still leaves $637,500. Where does that come from? The answer is that the 330 students paying full tuition now pay a fuller tuition by about $1,900. (I know it’s higher since the higher the tuition the higher the scholarships would be, but you get the idea.) In short, each student paying full tuition is now paying a 10% subsidy for those who cannot. I know that the parents who can pay this premium are content to do so. They know how the system works, they know they are blessed to be able to afford it and are understanding of the situation.

Now here comes the hard part. Many parents paying full tuition are “just” doing so (again generally happy to.) Here is my question: Which should be the family taking a vacation? The family accepting a scholarship or the families paying full? Go away for Pesach? Put an addition on a house? Buy an expensive car? Eat out regularly? When a family accepts tzedaka money from the community, they need to be sensitized to the fact of what that acceptance does to their friends and neighbors. The application process puts this into context. Is it hard? Yes. Should it be easy? No.

Third, the amount of work that goes into applying is great, but we cannot, unfortunately, rely on the honor system. There are more than a few people who attempt to game the system by telling school A that they pay $10K to school B, so they need a scholarship from them, and then tell school B that they pay school A $10K, so they need a scholarship from them.

Fourth, the student payment information is literally the most confidential information the schools keep. Unless a parent loops in a school administration to help lobby for assistance, the administrators (other than an executive director or bookkeeper) do not know what anyone pays. Furthermore, the scholarship committee themselves remains largely anonymous. As co-president of TABC, I knew the name of the committee chair, but it was not widely known. In fact, there was an extended board meeting discussing how we as a school should handle tuition assistance. After the discussion someone said “How is the scholarship committee going to be notified of the sense of the board?” to which I replied that the message will be transmitted. The head of the scholarship committee was a board member and was sitting right there in the room. No one knew who he was.

Lastly, when you go to donors to raise money, they generally have two questions: Are you keeping your budget as low as possible? Are you ensuring that each student is paying as much as they can?

I hope the above doesn’t come off as too harsh. It is not meant to be. I really get it. For most people, the process of merely asking is difficult enough that there is no need to delve into the details. I am sure that is true. The process—which I am sure can be improved—is an evolutionary one meant to give the parent body and the donors the assurance that each dollar in assistance is done with the greatest of care, but only in the cases of need.

My comments above are not in any way to call out the author wrong or misguided in any way. As I said, by and large, I agree with her. But as a lay leader who has always tried to be transparent, I write this since I don’t want the readers to say: “She’s right, what could the schools possibly be thinking” (see my previous article for the reference).

In closing,, I have a great deal of compassion to those who need to ask the community for help. I know that there is a balance to be struck between those who need and those who give. As a parent who (BH) is now on the other side of the tuition situation (i.e. my children are older) I still remember the choices we had to make to pay for our children’s education. As I said at the outset, I welcome the suggestions Dr. Vaynman makes.

In addition to a career in advertising and marketing, Mark Zomick has served as president of the Young Israel of Teaneck and co-president of Torah Academy of Bergen County. He has also served as a producer and the music director for the Nachum Segal Network for over 30 years. His opinions are his own, but he urges you to consider making them yours as well.