Sunday, August 09, 2020

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First, I want to acknowledge the pain and emotional distress that Dvorah Vaynman and her husband have experienced as a result of the economic dislocation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to ask their daughter’s yeshiva for financial aid (“The Humiliation of Applying for Yeshiva Tuition Assistance," July 16, 2020). As Mrs. Vaynman notes in her article, “No one wants to be on the asking end.” I certainly agree and empathize with that.

That being said, I disagree with Mrs. Vaynman’s position that robust financial disclosures are inappropriate in the day school scholarship application process. We all understand that every yeshiva day school has a limited pot of cash at its disposal. Those resources need to be drawn from and allocated among (1) full paying parents, (2) parents whose children are on full or partial scholarship, (3) teachers, administrators and staff, and (4) the needs of the institution itself (physical plant, equipment, etc.). Like it or not, the relationship between these constituencies is, economically, a zero sum game: if you increase the amount of scholarships that are distributed, then you increase the tuition of full paying parents or limit teacher salaries. Further, a school needs to allocate limited scholarship funds to students with the understanding that a bigger scholarship for one student often means a smaller scholarship for another.


Given that understanding, any day school necessarily must ask: how do we allocate resources among these groups in the most fair and equitable way? The most fair and unbiased way to allocate scholarships is based on a robust financial disclosure of the nature that Mrs. Vaynman disparages in her article. How else could you determine the amount of scholarship that should be given to Student A versus Student B? How else to decide that Student C deserves a break and that the parents of full paying Student D should stretch themselves to pay for it? A fuzzy, non-numbers based process with a non-anonymous scholarship committee might “feel” better, but the results of that process would instead be based on factors such as who is better liked in the community or who is more well connected at the school. Most of us would agree that such a system would not be wise or just.

One quick example to bring this point home. Without the disclosures described in Mrs. Vaynman’s article, a family could go on an annual ski vacation to Vail, have full time cleaning help, throw a $100,000 bar mitzvah, and then come to their school asking for aid. Of course, this is an extreme example, but those financial disclosures are necessary because people have different subjective understandings of need and baseline standards of living. Sadly, there may also be bad actors who ask for help knowing that it is not appropriate (and while such bad actors may be rare, an institution that is a responsible financial steward must accept that sometimes they may occur).

Again, nobody wants to ask for help. And in this time, when many are asking for help for the first time, day schools should do everything possible to fashion a process that is as sensitive and empathetic as possible. But when assigning scholarships, robust financial disclosure and guidance of the nature that Mrs. Vaynman rejects are absolutely necessary to ensure that a day school’s limited resources are allocated as fairly as possible.

Steven Starr